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openTenancy: Opening the Doors on Tenancy Rights with Legal Technology

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Large cuts to legal aid funding resulted in many people being unable to access legal advice when they need it most, leaving the law primarily to those that can afford it. This has meant that many people don’t understand, never mind enforce, the rights that are available to them as tenants. Legal technology is capable of fixing that problem and improving access to justice, something that we noticed and which ultimately led to the creation of openTenancy.

The initial idea for openTenancy was an application that would condense the multitude of online resources into one simple interface, summarised in plain English, with the aim being to provide a more centralised and digestible source of tenancy guidance. The platform grew into something much larger than this when we met our now sponsor Catherine Bamford (CEO of consultancy BamLegal) who introduced us to Docassemble, an open source tool used to create automated questionnaires. 

openTenancy is now an open source website for users to understand their tenancy rights and be signposted to the most appropriate resources depending on their issue. On the website users can access an automated questionnaire that cuts out the white noise and legal jargon, condensing the information into a short PDF at the end of the interview. The PDF also includes every question asked and the answers given by the users, allowing them to have a document they can bring to their local council or legal aid centre. 

We decided to make openTenancy open source for a number of reasons. At its core, we wanted openTenancy to be made for the average individual who has no knowledge of the law, and doesn’t necessarily want to be forced to pursue that knowledge. Instead, they need somewhere they can turn to in order to figure out what to do when they can’t pay their council tax or have a leak that their landlord won’t repair. We felt that the best way to do that was to allow openTenancy to be shaped by our community, and that’s why we’re keeping openTenancy fully transparent, from every line of code to every decision tree that we implement. 

Developing an open source platform isn’t easy. openTenancy is and always will be free for our users, meaning that it is a passion project for both of our co-founders, Amy and Ana. This means we need to balance the time and money that we invest in the project. Currently our server costs are covered by our sponsor BamLegal, while the rest of the costs come out of our own pocket. This means that there are certain things we have to learn ourselves, such as UI design, and there are other luxuries that for-profit companies can afford that we cannot. 

The benefits of having people contribute to the development of openTenancy outweigh the negatives. This means that openTenancy will grow in the direction that the contributors wish it to. It was important to us that openTenancy did not feel inaccessible, and instead felt more like a community. Leveraging open source principles and allowing contributors to get involved is our primary way of doing that. 

There are two different ways that people can contribute to the development of openTenancy. For those with experience with Docassemble or coding, we welcome direct contributions to our code base. On the other hand, we also welcome flowcharts or decision trees breaking down common tenancy issues into questions and answers, which we can then turn into the code that makes up the automated questionnaire. The first version of openTenancy has just launched, covering a range of topics under repairs. We now welcome contributions and flowcharts covering any tenancy topic, meaning that the growth of openTenancy will be truly dynamic and shaped by the community. 

The version of openTenancy that we have now launched is just the beginning. The best part of developing a platform in this way is that the sky’s the limit for what we can achieve, the future will undoubtedly be shaped by the needs of the users and those who contribute. openTenancy has the power to become the google of discovering your tenancy rights, providing a central hub from which everyone will be signposted to the appropriate resources. 

openTenancy is now available at www.opentenancy.co.uk, with our current questionnaire relating to repairs. If you’re interested in contributing and shaping the future of access to justice in the UK you can find out more at www.opentenancy.co.uk/about

By: Amy Conroy and Ana Shmyglya 

Photo by Akil Mazumder from Pexels

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