The Algorithm Lawyer
Can robots help make the justice system more fair? Apparently, and some are already hard at work promoting equality: The free “DoNotPay” app is designed to help asylum seekers petition for refugee status, the homeless apply for emergency housing, and drivers object to wrongful tickets. Read More
Small, mundane injustices can truly ruin a perfectly good day. Imagine for a moment you have just spent the evening with friends at the cinema; the film was great and the company even better. Whistling happily, you make your way back to your car, only to find a parking ticket tucked under your windscreen wiper. But there is not a no-parking sign in sight. Your good mood is gone, replaced by annoyance and frustration over the unfairness of the situation.
You might even have a very good chance of getting the fine dismissed, but who goes to court for such a small amount? It is often more expensive to ask a lawyer about your chances for dismissal than to just pay the ticket and be done. Figuring out how to contest a ticket yourself is complicated and takes a lot of time. So we often ignore life’s little injustices.
As is so often the case, those with the least are hit the hardest. People who don’t have to watch every penny might consider hiring a solicitor, while those with limited funds are unlikely to take the risk. This means people who cannot afford a good lawyer are less likely to insist on their rights, all over the world. And not just for life’s small injustices either.
Brit Joshua Browder decided that this was unacceptable. His dissatisfaction with the status quo started with a simple parking violation. The ink on his driving license had barely had time to dry before the tickets began. For a while, he made the effort to contest them and was somewhat surprised to discover that he won more often than not. So he decided to create an app to help others contest their parking tickets, the DoNotPay app, available for free download since 2015.
DoNotPay is like having a digital lawyer in your phone. It gathers data on the specifics of the case, the amounts of the fine(s) involved, then assesses whether the charges can be contested in each individual situation, and, if so, how. The service is much more comprehensive than your average advice website, and helps with more than just filling out paperwork. Via Facebook Messenger, users describe their problem and receive free advice. Using a chat format, the program asks for the specifics of the case, almost like a real lawyer would. Then it calculates the realistic chances of winning the case and getting the fine dismissed, before formulating a proper notice of appeal.
The parking ticket program has been released for the UK and the USA, where it has done a lot of good in a short time. So far, it has helped an estimated 150,000 users save a total of more than four million euros in fines. Inspired by his initial success, Joshua developed a version that assists travellers in demanding refunds from airlines for long delays. Once that was up and running well, he turned his attention to more existential issues: first homelessness, then flight.
Throughout England, and in London in particular, a record number of people were forced out of their flats in 2015. The rising price of housing coupled with cuts to public assistance left many unable to keep up with their rent. Since 2016, DoNotPay has tried to help them find alternatives to sleeping on the streets. The chat program asks users what led to the loss of their flat, then figures out the best way to help. In most cases, it composes a letter requesting emergency housing for the user to submit to the proper authorities.
In 2017, Joshua also started a program to help refugees with the asylum process in England, Canada and the USA. He worked very closely with lawyers and NGOs in all three countries. In the USA and Canada, asylum seekers now have a robot lawyer at their side as they fill out the immigration forms to ensure their chances of being granted asylum are as high as possible. In England, where asylum seeks have to apply in person, it helps users determine whether they can apply for financial assistance. The digital lawyer also offers tips for increasing the chances of approval.
DoNotPay might one day contribute to making the justice system fairer: “to a system in which everyone is treated equally regarding of their level of wealth.”
Since DoNotPay runs via Facebook Messenger, the app is accessible on almost any device and very easy to use. The one disadvantage is that users’ privacy cannot be entirely guaranteed, since Facebook is involved. DoNotPay does what it can though, and Joshua has made sure that each application is erased from its servers within ten minutes of being sent.
DoNotPay is not just free. It also uses easy-to-understand language to make the legal advice service easy to access for users of all educational backgrounds and levels of experience. Joshua hopes that algorithms like DoNotPay might one day contribute to making the justice system fairer – “to a system in which everyone is treated equally regarding of their level of wealth.”