#EDGY 23 JULY 2015
These days, the service sector is slowly moving online. There’s an online platform for almost anything you may need.
If you need to book a lorry or a car, there is TheLorry.com, Uber or GrabCar, among others. If you need to engage a plumber, contractor or cleaner, there are many options such as RecomN.com, Kaodim.com and ServisHero.
What about legal needs? Can anyone just build an online platform that would connect people who need legal advice or services with lawyers?
The short answer is no, that’s not allowed — at least not in Malaysia.
In 2010, Index Continent Sdn Bhd tried to create a platform, called Answers-in-Law, to provide access to legal advice and representation.
Answers-in-Law sought to give people access to panel law firms through an interactive legal directory as well as on-demand legal advice through the phone or web chat.
It also offered various yearly plans that people could subscribe to in case they had legal needs, much like a health insurance plan.
All this sounds rather workable, that is until Index Continent found itself on the receiving end of legal action from the Malaysian Bar, the professional body that regulates lawyers.
In July 2011, the Malaysian Bar went to court to obtain an injunction to stop Index Continent from operating. It said that the latter was an “unauthorised person” under Section 37 of the Legal Profession Act 1976.
Answers-in-Law’s website, however, does not claim to replace lawyers. On its website, it clearly states that it “does not directly provide legal services. We are here to make the experience of hiring a lawyer easier, more affordable and less intimidating”.
Bar Council secretary Karen Cheah recently told a public forum that the matter had been settled.
“In June, they told us they would cease and we settled. It’s very recent,” Cheah said at a July 11 event by the Collective of Applied Law and Legal Realism (CALR), where lawyers and law students came together to discuss and ideate change for the legal industry.
CALR and information technology services firm Omesti Bhd will soon roll out a free website called DIY Law that will offer legal information and templates for simple legal matters.
CALR is a new initiative, driven by legal firm BON Advocates, which aims to improve access to justice as well as reform the legal industry.
BON Advocates founder Edmund Bon says access to justice will be provided through technology.
To be sure, DIY Law is not the first of its kind. There are others such as DocuDeer.com that offer free legal templates as well as various websites with free will writing kits available for download.
Omesti’s Jayme Lee explains that the DIY Law initiative will not replace the role of lawyers.
“It is about humanising legal services and making them easy to understand. There are existing ones out there but we are the first to do it differently. We aim not to look or feel or sound like lawyers,” she says.
DIY Law plans to use relevant content, infographics, checklists and templates to help the public understand legal services and perhaps enable them to “do-it-yourself”. The templates cover simple matters such as will writing and sales and purchase agreements. “Some things you can DIY but certainly not everything,” says Bon.
All information on the site has been vetted by seasoned lawyers, Lee adds.
‘Change or be changed’
The DIY Law project has courted some controversy and raised debate on whether free templates on the internet can “replace” the need for lawyers.
Does opposition to things like DIY Law and Answers-in-Law mean that the legal industry (or its regulators) is resistant to technology? The answer depends on who you ask.
The legal industry is famously a conservative one — slow to change and adopt new innovations.
Nevertheless, technology is changing the way lawyers and the court system works. Lawyers now use email, Dropbox and messaging platforms to communicate with their clients. In recent years, Malaysian courts have adopted a new electronic court filing system.
At the same CALR event, Bar Council vice-president George Varghese weighed in on what change means for the legal industry.
“The legal industry is ripe for change even if it will remain a conservative industry. Once it reaches an inflexion point, it will be change or be changed.
“There are many examples in the UK, Australia and even Singapore, where the legal industry has adopted new regulations in response to public and business demands across all service sectors,” he said.
One example Varghese cited is changes to the UK Legal Services Act 2007 to enable non-lawyers to own or invest in law firms. Then, there’s technology that has changed the way people live and disrupted virtually every area of business, including the legal practice.
“One example is online dispute resolution (ODR) services that’s rapidly growing … Only the short-sighted will say that lawyers are being replaced by technology. In actuality, ODR opens up the market and expands the need for legal services,” said Varghese.
- What people think about legal services
Most people, at some point in their lives, will have to engage a lawyer for a property transaction, business matter or to settle a dispute. But the level of public awareness of how the legal system works is still rather low.
The Collective of Applied Law and Legal Realism recently ran a basic online survey on what people thought about legal services. About 300 people responded and 64% of them said they had encountered legal issues.
The survey’s findings were not surprising. Most people did not understand the legal industry and thought that it should change.