If you can’t afford a lawyer and aren’t one of the 0.3% per cent of Australians who qualify for legal aid, how do you access quality legal advice?
A combination of expensive legal fees, cuts to government-funded assistance and restrictions on access to free legal aid means thousands of Australians can’t get the help they need.
This is the very dilemma being tackled by ANIKA Legal, an Australian not-for-profit startup aiming to make quality legal advice available to everyone.
The concept behind ANIKA is relatively simple: people who can’t access legal assistance are connected with law students who draft advice under supervision from qualified lawyers.
Noel Lim, a law graduate from Monash University in Melbourne and co-founder of ANIKA, says the startup is fundamentally different to a typical government-funded legal assistance program.
“ANIKA is unique as we leverage technology to streamline and monetise the giving of legal advice by enabling law students to gain practical legal experience through their law degree,” he says.
“Our sustainable business model allows for the provision of access to justice on an unprecedented scale.”
The idea for ANIKA began as an entry in the inaugural Global Legal Hackathon in February 2018, an international initiative focused on developing solutions for the benefit of the legal industry around the world.
“Five friends and I went to the event hoping to try something new and have a few laughs on the weekend,” Noel says.
“Most of the group had a law background, so we had an intimate understanding of just how dire problems with access to justice were, as well as the lesser known problem of the severe lack of practical legal training opportunities for law students.
“Each year, 490,000 Australians don’t get the legal help they need, and at the same time, universities can only provide clinical placements to a select few law students due to financial constraints. Having both of these problems exist seemed a bit ridiculous to us, and we saw an opportunity to use technology to address both of these problems with each other.”
Noel and his team ran with the idea in the initial stages of the Hackathon, which was hosted in Melbourne and more than 40 other cities around the world. After proceeding through the first two pitching rounds, they took it all the way to the final round at a gala in New York, where they finished runners-up. After receiving significant support for the idea, they decided to make it happen.
I can’t help but ask Noel about the delivery of free legal advice. How can they ensure it’s of the highest possible quality, especially given the involvement of university students? How are they using technology to streamline the entire process, ensuring it is as accessible as possible?
“Providing legal services online isn’t easy, and the platform we’re developing is complex,” he explains.
“A practising lawyer reviews and signs off on every piece of advice given. The platform connects them with the student and client, so they’re able to have the final say on what’s sent to the client, as well as provide the student with guidance and feedback on the drafting of the advice.”
“AI has a number of possible uses in the ANIKA process. From de-identifying prior advice to ensure confidentiality to assessing the likelihood of legal matters being relevant in a given case, and everything in between, there’s enormous potential for AI to provide guidance and streamline the advice-giving process for our students and lawyers.
“In practice, it’s still largely uncertain territory, but we’re working with AI companies and are excited about the possibilities and what that means for just how much ANIKA can help those who need it.”
ANIKA will initially engage pro bono lawyers to oversee advice drafted by students from partner universities, but the team plans to employ in-house lawyers after the pilot program to ensure a high number of cases can be handled smoothly.
While quality and delivery of the service is a key consideration for ANIKA, the team has an even bigger challenge. The choice to structure the startup as a not-for-profit eliminates investors from the equation, making funding all the more difficult to secure.
ANIKA is currently in the running for a Victorian government grant for projects which promote a better and brighter community. Funding like this is crucial for the platform to get up and running to a point where it can be financially sustained by law schools.
“For those who support our mission of fighting for a justice system that works for everyone, it would be an incredible help if you would donate five minutes of your time to vote for ANIKA and help us get the grant funding we need.”
If you’d like to support ANIKA, live in Victoria and are at least 16 years of age, head to the Pick My Project website before September 17 and follow the steps to submit your vote. Otherwise, follow ANIKA Legal on Facebook to keep up with the team as they continue their push for accessible justice.