Current Trends In Technology For The Provision of Legal Information

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We live in a world where communication happens instantaneously and copious amounts of real and false information can be spread rapidly to a large number of people. Information has become so abundant that those who aren’t well-versed researchers can easily be overwhelmed and have difficulty determining what information is useful to them, as well as what is real and what is fake. In fact, 2017 will likely go down in history as the point in time when “alternative facts” became a suitable explanation for the continued disbursement of wrong information.

The automation of legal activity will undoubtedly continue to grow as innovators continuously work to increase the functionality of existing websites, chatbots and apps and design other accessible solutions to common legal issues. Proponents of technology argue that it is wonderful because, despite information overload and the increased confusion caused by the spread of unreliable information, the ability to communicate instantaneously and use technology makes life more convenient, and people are better informed than they have ever been. Tasks like banking, shopping, ordering take-out, organizing our daily affairs, and even finding a date are generally done using a computer or cell phone now instead of the “old-fashioned way.”

In the context of the law, technology is increasingly being used to provide free access to basic legal information that is easy to understand. Research that used to require combing through hundreds of articles, publications and other information sources has been simplified by websites, phone apps, and Internet chatbots designed to interact with users in a particular geographic location in a quick and easy question-and-answer style. Users follow prompts or  type in simple questions and the website, phone app or chatbot provides legal information about that issue. Public legal education organizations such as the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA) exist across Canada to provide accessible, plain language legal resources both online and in print.

For example, on the free cell phone app LegalSwipe, people can quickly learn what their rights are during an interaction with police in five regions in Canada and the United States. Users simply select from a list of questions about the interaction and are told what they can do based on their answers to the subsequent yes or no questions. Additionally, users can record video and audio of the interaction, which is then automatically uploaded to Google Drive, or send an emergency message to a pre-selected contact, although these functions are not yet operational.

Only qualified people (namely lawyers) can give legal advice, which is intended to interpret legal rules and rights as it applies to a person in a specific situation and offer an opinion on how to proceed or how to argue a position.

As another example, websites like www.mylawbc.modria.com and www.legalave.ca allow users to follow a “Guided Pathway” to get answers to specific questions related to family law and family violence in B.C. and Alberta respectively. MyLawBC also provides information regarding missed mortgage payments, wills and personal planning. By selecting questions and answers as prompted by the pathway, users can generate a PDF info sheet on MyLawBC or a link to printable information on LegalAve.

To date, these interactive services have been designed for particular areas of law, focusing on common subjects like family law, and each website or application offers a limited number of topics to choose from. As technology-based legal guidance and services grows in response to demand and new developments, we see the types of service offered being expanded. For example, www.lawdepot.ca, which allows users to generate a variety of legal documents, forms, and contracts for free, has existed for some time, but competitive new websites, designed to perform automated checks on contracts and highlight potential issues, are on the rise and it is only a matter of time before they officially launch (see www.legalrobot.com).

In the United Kingdom, Stanford University student Joshua Browder launched the DoNotPay chatbot in September 2015, initially designed to help users contest parking tickets. By January 2016, the Daily Mail UK reported that the chatbot had helped over 120,000 people avoid paying fines. Browder extended the service to New York and Seattle in 2016.

For example, on the free cell phone app LegalSwipe, people can quickly learn what their rights are during an interaction with police in five regions in Canada and the United States. Browder quickly set out to expand the applicability of his chatbot further and, in August 2016, the Washington Post reported that DoNotPay had begun assisting people in Britain with applications for government housing. A visit to the chatbot’s site www.donotpay.co.uk reveals that it now also offers assistance with getting property repairs from landlords and compensation from airlines for cancelled flights departing or arriving in the U.K. Users simply input terms like “cancelled flight” or “parking ticket” and follow the yes or no prompts. If the user’s dispute fits into a certain type of appeal – for example a parking ticket due to unclear signage – the user is able to generate an automated appeal form they can use to fight their ticket. However, the chatbot’s ability to generate solutions is limited and if the user does not fit the fairly small range of appeals the chatbot can address, they quickly receive this message:

Ok. Feel free to visit us at www.DoNotPay.co.uk for more help. Alternatively, if you feel that you need additional help related to homelessness, you can contact Shelter. Their number is 0808 800 4444 or 0344 515 1540 (London). There is a webchat service Shelter provides here.

Browder has been named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law and Policy and, judging by the announcements he has made on his Twitter account, he is working on expanding the application of chatbots and technology to other areas of law like immigration and government administration. He has also developed an application of blockchain, a form of distributed database, for people who are HIV positive that need to prove they have disclosed this to new sexual partners in order to avoid criminal and civil prosecution.

In the context of the law, technology is increasingly being used to provide free access to basic legal information that is easy to understand. For those who want more than basic info or wish to learn how to actually interpret the law, lawyers and legal scholars are increasingly making use of technology by offering podcast seminars, which are free and accessible by anybody with an Internet connection. Some, like the Canadian Immigration Podcast hosted by Mark Holthe, are client-oriented and designed to provide information that helps people looking for immigration law information. Others, like Borderlines created by Vancouver immigration lawyers Peter Edelmann and Steven Meurrens, are geared more towards lawyers by focusing on policy and legal analysis discussions.

Some law school professors, like Peter Sankoff at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, are now putting their entire lectures on podcasts (or as Professor Sankoff calls them, capsules), and anyone can go to their websites and learn all the legal concepts they teach without actually going to law school. It is arguable that such podcasts essentially allow the general public to acquire a legal education. But, even client-oriented podcasts like those offered by Holthe requires users to be moderately sophisticated to make use of the information they are given and thus are not as far-reaching as other resources that have been developed.

Digital legal services are careful to proclaim that they provide legal information, not legal advice. To be clear, that means they offer information to help people understand their legal rights and what they might do with these rights. Only qualified people (namely lawyers) can give legal advice, which is intended to interpret legal rules and rights as it applies to a person in a specific situation and offer an opinion on how to proceed or how to argue a position.

For those who want more than basic info or wish to learn how to actually interpret the law, lawyers and legal scholars are increasingly making use of technology by offering podcast seminars, which are free and accessible by anybody with an Internet connection. For this reason, it seems highly unlikely that lawyers will be completely replaced by robots and technology. In order to interpret legal rules and apply them appropriately, people need to be able to describe their case, their circumstances, their defence, and other relevant factors to a human being who is qualified to analyze the applicability of legal rules, advise the client, and advocate on their behalf. Laws are open to interpretation and are constantly being changed. While a computer program can provide generic answers to legal questions based on fixed parameters, the law’s subjectivity to nuances arguably makes robotic-based systems insufficient to assist a user with more than basic legal information.

The automation of legal activity will undoubtedly continue to grow as innovators continuously work to increase the functionality of existing websites, chatbots and apps and design other accessible solutions to common legal issues. To the extent that this makes reliable legal information available and understandable to the public, society should benefit from such innovations. Lawyers who adapt to technology and offer higher value legal work that cannot be automated will prevail, but the days of charging for simple legal work are limited in number as clients adjust to using free technology instead.

Scarlett Chan is a student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta and a member of Pro Bono Students Canada
About Scarlett Chan

Scarlett Chan is a student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta and a member of Pro Bono Students Canada

A Publication of CPLEA