An award-winning social enterprise has found an innovative way to offer renters access to justice: by combining customised technology, supervised legal internship programs, and a clever funding mechanism.
It was the perfect set-up. An invitation from a friend to the Global Legal Hackathon, which asks participants to solve a set of legal problems with technology; a passion to address the ‘wicked problem’ of inadequate access to justice; and the dream of a career in social impact.
That was in 2018, and Noel Lim hasn’t looked back.
“On that weekend, we came up with the idea for Anika Legal,” says Lim, who has been the CEO of this social enterprise since its origins. “It would be a free legal service that would provide legal support to people who would otherwise not receive it. To fund it, we came up with a model that leverages the capital of universities as well as the energy of law students.”
Lim explains: “The lawyers in the service would be supported by law students, who would be helping them to service more clients than they could on their own. And the student internship programs would be funded by universities who wanted to provide their students with practical legal training.
“And so they’d be indirectly funding the access to justice.”
The result of the Hackathon? “We ended up placing as world runners-up,” Lim says.
“And from there, we decided to do it for real.”
Goddess of justice in a changing world
“Doing it for real” – setting up Anika Legal as a legal services social enterprise – meant taking care of a few things first. Number one was to find a name for the organisation.
“Just about any name ending in ‘Legal’ was trademarked,” Lim says. “When we were looking for something that wasn’t trademarked, we came across the word ‘Anika’: the Hindu goddess for cosmic justice as well as the Buddhist concept of things being in a constant state of change.”
He adds: “And we thought, this is perfect: Anika, the goddess of cosmic justice, being the vision of a world where everyone can access justice, in combination with our mission of doing things differently, in a world which is in a constant state of change.”
Number two on the to-do list was setting Anika Legal up as a social enterprise, which, Lim says, required buy-in from many like-minded people. They weren’t hard to find.
“We started with six co-founders who were all friends from Monash University, studying law there,” he says.
“And, pretty soon after we resolved to start Anika, we had a whole bunch of volunteers put their hands up and say, hey, we’d love to get involved. We now have 62 volunteers. And I was the first employee as the cofounder and CEO, and as we progressed, we secured more funding, which let us grow the organisation, and so now we have five employees.”
The third key ingredient was finding a focus for the work of Anika Legal. This was important for financial viability, Lim explains. “We had to have a very narrow area to start with to make sure that we could streamline the role of the lawyers supervising the students. The lawyers’ salary would be funded entirely through the university business model. Having that narrow focus meant they could efficiently guide the students in our service to make the right decision on their own nine times out of ten. That made the model viable.”
The chosen focus of Anika Legal was to offer free legal support that would enable renters to maintain safe housing.
“Anika focuses specifically on housing and tenancy,” Lim explains. “We’re providing renters with legal support to help them maintain safe, secure homes, really focusing on repairs, on recovering bonds that are unfairly withheld. Evictions for rental arrears, these types of legal problems. To date we’ve assisted more than 600 renters.”
Anika Legal has considered moving into other areas of law. “However, with the huge level of unmet need in housing, we’re going through a national housing crisis at the moment. There’s just so much demand that it’s most impactful for us to continue supporting renters to stay in safe homes,” Lim says.
Completely immersed in legal technology
The fourth component, Lim says, is the use of legal technology. “We had planned to have all of the legal services and all of the student programs run online, so that was an important part in creating the Anika legal model.
“But we realised later how important legal technology was in creating a viable business model. This came from our learning that law students take a lot of supervision – a very time intensive process. We also realised that student programs cost more to supervise than to just have the lawyers do it on their own in the first place.”
Anika’s leaders realised, Lim says, that “if you choose a few strategic areas of law and then use legal technology in education, and technology to streamline the role of the supervising lawyer, that will reduce the costs. And it means that the student programs are bringing in more money than they cost to run.”
“With this in place, the business model was viable: and so that was how we’ve become completely immersed in legal technology. It’s fundamental to our model.”
The technology for Anika Legal has been crafted to meet the organisation’s unique needs. Lim takes his hat off to head of technology Matthew Segal, who was recently selected as Australian NFP Tech Volunteer of the Year.
“Segal has been instrumental in developing the technology that we needed to make Anika what it is.” Lim says, “It’s an example of how impactful technology can be. It’s literally enabled our entire service and business model.”
Lim was originally sceptical, he says, when Segal approached him with the idea of “a pretty bold tech innovation” – creating a bespoke case-management system. “We were using an off-the-shelf case-management system. And it worked OK, though there were a few issues with it which didn’t work with our workflow. What I didn’t factor in was that our workflow, our service delivery and our legal operations are very different from those of many other legal services, and that this necessitated a bespoke system.”
“Our workflow, our service delivery and our legal operations are very different from those of many other legal services, and this necessitated a bespoke system.”
Lim continues: “Segal said, ‘I think we can build this on our own,’ and I thought this was going completely against the conventional wisdom of trying to buy rather than build your own thing, especially when it’s something as complex as a case management system – and there are so many options out there. And I guess I underestimated our digital capability.”
But fortunately for Anika Legal, Lim says, “after a while, I said, ‘OK, give it a shot.’ Segal coded it from scratch, and the tech project went amazingly well. There were hardly any bugs with the software, and it works really well. I was very happy to be wrong, because it meant that we were able to improve our service efficiency by a great deal. And that means more resources for access to justice. So that’s a big win.”
Lim believes that the legal social enterprise is the best environment in which to incorporate innovative legal technology.
“Thinking about the private legal sector,” he says, “If your tech innovations create value for your client, then you could capture that value in the form of the client fees that you receive.
“But lawyers are trained to mitigate risk. And risk, some level of risk, is essential for innovation. Often calculated risks are proportionate to the reward that you might see. And so you’ve got this culture of risk aversion in lawyers and then that misalignment of incentives on an individual lawyer level that encourages the risk aversion as well.”
The nature of the CLC sector also poses challenges for innovative legal technology. “In the CLC sector, funding practices aren’t conducive to tech innovation. The funding that is available is short term. And that creates uncertainty and inability to plan as well as an administrative burden. Tech innovation takes time, and it takes appropriate risks. The sector is chronically under-resourced, and that means that CLCs are most concerned about retaining staff and keeping their head above water; consequently, tech development is not the priority,” Lim says.
‘In the CLC sector, funding practices aren’t conducive to tech innovation. The funding that is available is short term. And that creates uncertainty and inability to plan as well as an administrative burden. Tech innovation takes time, and it takes appropriate risks.’
“If your tech innovation creates value for your clients,” Lim says, “you’d only capture that value if it’s also seen as valuable to your funders. This would create a situation where the priorities are split: if you want to be assured that you’re going to receive the funding, you’d start designing tech for the funders, not for the beneficiaries. And that means you’d have a whole lot of technology that is not fit for purpose.”
Despite these misgivings, Lim hope that Anika Lega’s model will be able to expand access to justice via CLCs. He says, “We hope that in the future the Anika model, this student powered model funded through the university business model, can be replicated by CLCs around Australia as a way to make service delivery a lot more efficient, as well as bring in revenue from outside of the CLC sector.”
A huge, wicked problem
Anika Legal has been approached by tenants from outside Victoria, which is where the social enterprise operates. “Unfortunately, at this stage we can’t help them,” Lim says. “But I hope that in time Anika Legal’s business model can be extended to offer access to justice in other states, and other areas of law. While tenancy is state specific, there are a few adjacent areas that our clients have problems in. For example, clients who are struggling to maintain a safe home; often it’s because of wage theft, which prevents them from paying their rent. And if we were to develop a service that would assist our clients in that area, that would be national. There’s obviously a huge unmet need for access to justice in Australia.
“And we hope that we can really expand these services on other scales, and replicate this model to increase the number of people who have access to justice.”
These are the achievements for Anika Legal on Lim’s wish list. This modest man has many of his own achievements behind him: he led Anika to win the AFR Client Choice Award for Startup of the Year in both 2019 and 2020, and was a nominee for the 2023 Victorian Young Australian of the Year.
Lim’s greatest achievement, he believes, would be addressing the “huge, wicked problem” of lack of access to justice. “Access to justice does not get the airtime it deserves. There are over four million people in Australia who don’t get access to justice. Only 10 per cent of the legal need actually gets met. The other 90 per cent just don’t get help.”
‘Access to justice does not get the airtime it deserves. There are over four million people in Australia who don’t get access to justice. Only 10 per cent of the legal need actually gets met. The other 90 per cent just don’t get help.’
Trying to solve that problem is what drives Lim. And it’s what drove him back to the law. After studying Arts/Law at university for two years, he says, “I decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I ended up working in an education technology startup and I became the national operations manager of that company while I was at university. And so that was clearly the thing I was more engaged with.”
But, he says, what made him return to the legal sector, “even though I decided that it wasn’t for me, was that there’s such a massive problem. And it’s so meaningful and solvable. When you look at the problem that you have millions of people in Australia who can’t access justice at the same time, and thousands of law students who are desperate for practical training, but they just can’t get it, it seems there are two problems that shouldn’t exist together.”
“And so there’s a massive opportunity. One that I’ve felt incredibly passionate about: trying to solve these problems with each other.”