A Scottish platform providing “access to justice” to employees suffering unfair treatment at work has become the first in the country taking part in a UK-wide programme to fast-track development of new products in the legal sector.
Set up last year by Danae Shell and Kate Ho, Edinburgh-based Valla is aiming to cut the cost of taking legal action by as much as 90 per cent by providing support to navigate much of the process. With the platform, users can collect evidence, generate legal letters and handle other largely administrative tasks on their own, and then connect with a lawyer when they need more detailed advice.
The DIY law platform is currently in closed testing across five pilot projects, with open beta testing expected to launch next year. Helping to facilitate this, Valla has been selected to take part in the LawTech Sandbox initiative, which allows innovators to trial new products using real data under the eye of relevant regulators.
Both technology professionals, Valla’s founders met when they were working at Scottish accounting software specialist FreeAgent. Both eventually moved on as their careers progressed, but they remained in touch.
“What we found was we kept seeing other women or other people from marginalised backgrounds having problems with their employer and not being able to do anything about it,” said Ms Shell, Valla’s chief executive. “We found that as we got more senior in our roles more people started coming to us for help and advocacy, and to be honest we just got really mad about [the treatment some people were receiving].
“We just started thinking, ‘OK what could we do about this with our backgrounds?’ We’re not lawyers, but we know how to build start-ups.”
Whereas accountants formerly handled many menial tasks such as tracking sales and inventory, software has now taken over much of this at a fraction of the cost, allowing clients to pay only for the professional advice they require. Ms Shell says Valla will do much the same for legal services.
“If you went to an employment lawyer with an issue, you would spend probably about £5,000-plus for a fairly simple case, and the reality is most people just can’t pay that,” she said. “What we are looking to do is for people to spend across the whole of the case maybe £500 in total.”
The business has been funded to date through a £475,000 pre-seed funding round closed in September of last year, with TechStart Ventures as the lead investor. Other backers include Ascension Ventures, along with a few private investors.
Ms Shell said she and her business partner plan to return to the market next year to raise further money to accelerate growth, though they have yet to determine the size of that fundraising.
Valla is just one of eight UK companies selected for this round of the LawTech Sandbox, a government-backed research and development programme run by Tech Nation. It will allow Valla, in conjunction with regulators, to examine what further help it might be able to provide to support litigants in person during the courts process.
“It gives us access directly to the Solicitors Regulation Authority so we can figure out what are the regulatory implications of actually doing the unbundling – where is the line between document generation, for example, because it’s so new,” Ms Shell said.
Tech Nation director Jenifer Swallow said her organisation is “delighted” with the latest LawTech cohort and looking forward to “wrapping around them the tools and community they need to deliver and thrive”.
While Valla is starting in employment law, there are plans to further expand into family law and housing.
“Technology has unbundled the accountancy industry,” Ms Shell said. “People manage their books through online accounting software like FreeAgent and Zero, they look after their own day-to-day bookkeeping and processing – all that paperwork, technology makes that easy now, and then you still get the accountancy advice when you need it.
“We realised we could do the same thing for the legal industry. The whole purpose of this company, the whole reason we exist is to close that access to justice gap, to increase access to justice, particularly for marginalised people.”