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Robot lawyers are still a long way away

Users of legal apps must be aware that these are essentially automated McKenzie friends, not trained and regulated solicitors, says Pippa Allsop

31 July 2017

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Joshua Browder wants to “make the law free”. In 2015 he launched the DoNotPay chatbot – a computer program that simulates conversation with users using artificial intelligence – with the aim of helping people to challenge parking tickets. DoNotPay has apparently helped approximately 375,000 people to successfully challenge parking tickets over the last two years, and has since branched out to provide legal assistance in connection with asylum claims and housing issues.

Recently, DoNotPay has launched “1,000 legal chatbots” which claim to be able to provide individuals with free advice in relation to a wide range of issues. The media claims that Browder is launching “the first robot lawyer” are clearly sensationalist. This being said, it is a both fascinating and worrying concept that is worth discussing.

Browder has attributed his motivation to start DoNotPay to his being “an accidental witness to how lawyers are exploiting human misery”. Well, gosh. Thank you, Mr Browder. I had been labouring under the misapprehension that I was providing legal support and assistance to people during a very difficult time in their life, using my expertise and experience to try to alleviate the stresses of the position they find themselves in. I stand corrected. I have, on several occasions, opined on the disintegration of the principle of access to justice. In the UK, the unavailability of legal aid, the hikes to court fees, and the closure of our court buildings have all contributed to the current problem.

I cannot, however, accept that an app can satisfactorily provide the solution. First, this is by no means a new idea. For many years now a wealth of online guidance has been available, and a number of online services have offered quick and cheap divorces.

Second, despite Mr Browder’s aspiration to “ultimately give everyone the same legal power as the richest in society”, access to resources and basic advice (which is all the app can offer) will simply not achieve this. It will not provide users with physical representation or tailored legal advice. It cannot provide a human point of contact who can understand both the individual and the nuances of their circumstances. Crucially, it offers no protection or culpability. It is not a solicitor, who has trained extensively to be able to protect their client’s best interests and who is properly regulated and insured so that there is recourse if things go wrong.

A few months ago I wrote an article discussing the rise of the online divorce and the possible repercussions for family law practitioners. When I talked about the “Reji Robo” divorce, my selfish concern was that the court system itself was making it easier for people to obtain their own divorce. My conclusion was, of course, that this could only be a positive thing and hopefully a boost to the recently crippled doctrine of “access to justice”.

However, the “divorce bot” is a different beast altogether. It is not a government-led initiative; rather it is essentially an automated McKenzie friend. It is imperative that its users appreciate this and are not led to believe that they are receiving free legal advice from a “robot lawyer”.

Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores

@MichelmoresLaw www.michelmores.com

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