The decline and fall (and potential resurgence) of the Rechtwijzer

As the Ministry of Justice looks to create an online court, Roger Smith considers the failure of the Dutch internet dispute resolution platform, that was held up internationally as the solution for cutting the cost of legal advice and increasing access to justice.

The Rechtwijzer is probably the only recent overseas innovation in legal services of which many domestic practitioners have heard. This is because, first of all, it represented a major strategic advance in the use of the internet and, secondly, because it was accompanied in its heyday by an unparalleled global marketing effort.

There was a time when you could not attend a conference on legal aid around the world without bumping into a representative of the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL, which developed it) or the Dutch Legal Aid Board (that came up with the original funding).

Earlier this year, the Board, however, announced that its development would cease and it would be scaled down to a domestically focused rather than globally oriented product, Justice42 (justice for two) which would just deal with divorces. What went wrong? In particular, was the failure one of substance or only of contingent issues relating to the arrangements of this particular product?

For the advice world, the breathtaking element of the Rechtwijzer’s first incarnation – developed from 2007 onwards – was that it used the interactive capacity of the internet. The system asked you questions before it gave you answers. There was, at the time, nothing like it. There is still very little beyond a product developed by the Rechtwijzer team in British Columbia, MyLawBC. If you have a moment go and see it. The interactivity of the system renders the ‘wallpaper’ approach of virtually every other site look outdated.

The main general information site here is that of Citizens Advice and it is being upgraded in quite a sophisticated way to make the information more accessible. But its approach – like others such as AdviceNow or, to use a specialist example, Shelter – remains linear. There is no use of decision trees or ‘guided pathways’ that draw out your problem and circumstances and then give an individual tailored answer.

Rechtwiijzer 1.0 was revolutionary in a number of other ways. You could, if you were a provider of services like a law firm or NGO, embed the programme into your website and provide it as a service that was preparatory or supplementary to your own offering. This is a route that survives in Ontario’s Steps for Justice but few others.

The Ontario project brings together a consortium of organisations – from government to NGOs – to draft material on different topics and then lets anyone embed it on their own site. So, the product becomes a sort of free-floating app that is openly available. This has to be an idea with more potential than has yet been realised.

Rechtwijzer 2.0 was even more revolutionary. It incorporated online mediation and arbitration into the package, for a price designed to make it financially self-sustaining but not profit-making. The problem was that the system was built but the people did not come. It was axed very soon after start up. Its numbers were disappointing and only about 1 per cent of those eligible to use the system chose to do so.

There are plenty of contingent reasons why the product was likely to fail. Behind it was a consortium of three organisations. The Dutch Legal Aid Board, having funded development, turned off the tap very quickly – a decision not helped by a change of guard among senior management with the retirement of its once supportive chief executive.

The software designer, Modria, was snapped up by a large US conglomerate, Tyler Technologies, and steered in a different direction. Hiil was forced to be commercial in order to survive itself as it lost all government funding but may have found the transition from research to business hard. It has since re-oriented to grant-aided overseas development projects.

Fundamentally, however, the problem is more likely to have been the shortness of the time limits imposed on the project. Consider that Uber has yet to turn a profit and Airbnb may only just have done so.

Rechtwijzer 2.0 was just not given enough time. It opened at the end of 2014: it was finally closed in March 2017. People facing matrimonial breakup take time even before they realise the full extent of their issues let alone start seeking to resolve them. This was a product for which there was a minimal marketing budget; dissipating support among its sponsors; and which threatened a steady income stream for established lawyers. No wonder it went bust.

The risks and rewards of a Rechtwijzer type product are both great. Relate pulled out of a domestic introduction because of the potential cost of establishment – possibly aided by a bit of concern among its lawyer supporters.

Commercial enterprises can take their time and as the great internet behemoths have been able to do. Governments generally get one shot (a problem for the Online Solutions Court as we may well find). The Dutch missed. That does not mean that the idea will not arise again from the dark recesses of British Columbia where it bides its time.

Incorporating interactivity into web provision is the next big leap for the legal advice and legal services sector. The diminishing cost and rising effectiveness of artificial intelligence will give this type of provision a substantial new boost – the Rechtwijzer was based on first generation decision trees, nothing at all flashy.

Somewhere, sometime, the idea will resurface. And it has every chance of getting the success that it then deserves.



About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

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