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Robot Litigation Lawyers — Part 2: Access to Justice and Regulation

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In my last article I argued for the development of a justice API which allows robot lawyers to communicate directly with the court’s computer systems.  This would unlock the evolution of robot lawyers in litigation by enabling them to act for — rather than merely advise — their clients. In this part I explore how API-enabled robot lawyers could improve access to justice and how they might be regulated.

A robot lawyer is better than no lawyer

Changes to legal aid funding have limited the availability of legal advice, especially in civil cases. The result is that those who can afford legal representation often have much more effective access to justice than those who cannot.

Technology has so far failed to plug the gap. Even where legaltech products exist to advise individuals, they cannot file documents with the court and cannot give specific advice on court procedure. By contrast, robot lawyers linked to a justice API would be able to issue claims, make filings, and provide advice on procedure based on real-time directions from the court. In short, they could do much of what a human lawyer does.

This would benefit the court as well as the client. Robot lawyers can address many of the practical difficulties traditionally associated with litigants in person, including procedural failings and imbalances in knowledge. The robot could manage submissions and ensure that the litigant in person is well prepared to represent themselves at a hearing. Properly implemented, robot lawyers could even automate compliance with pre-action protocols and so reduce the court’s caseload.

Crucially, robot lawyers are likely to be much cheaper for litigants than human lawyers. Although there would be significant development costs attached to building out a fully featured system, the marginal costs of advising each client would be very low. Law firms and clients could share the savings. The ultimate goal might be a mixed ecosystem of free, freemium, and paid robot lawyers targeting different areas of the legal landscape. This business model is already emerging through products like autom.io, which allows law firms to build revenue-generating robots which draw from the firm’s legal expertise.

Robot lawyers can counter digital exclusion

Access to justice also requires that people are empowered to exercise their legal rights. As court buildings close in favour of online courts, people who are not tech-savvy enough to navigate online court systems risk being disenfranchised from access to legal services. For many in this group, it is a lack of confidence and skill which limits their use of online services rather than a lack of access to the internet.

Robot lawyers could help by offering legal advice and receiving instructions through familiar channels like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Users could start and manage  claims through their usual messaging app rather than engaging with a new and potentially daunting court system. This is not an edge case: 19% of internet users are unable to accomplish basic tasks online. It is these clients who would benefit from engaging with justice in a familiar online setting.

A Robot Regulation Authority

Benefits aside, the rise of robot lawyers will present a significant regulatory challenge. Common concerns include how to assign liability for a robot’s actions, whether robots will adhere to professional ethics, and the transparency of decision-making processes. If robot lawyers are to become available to the public at large, they will need to be regulated to ensure that they give sound advice and achieve good outcomes for their clients.

One approach would be to make a robot’s access to the justice API (and therefore its interaction with the court) subject to compliance with a set of minimum standards, such as:

  • Registration of an entity which is responsible for the robot’s advice and actions, and liable to clients in negligence
  • Evidence that a litigant has properly authorised the robot to act on their behalf
  • Certification that the robot’s content has been regularly reviewed by its controlling entity
  • Logging of all correspondence between the robot and client for audit purposes
  • Recording the basis upon which any advice is given or action taken
  • Monitoring and regular reporting of case outcomes

More ambitiously, a regulator could put in place an automated testing regime. For example, every robot could be presented with a set of common legal scenarios and the competence of its output would then be assessed against best practice.

Robot lawyers are already with us. A justice API would allow them to reach their full potential in enabling access to justice in litigation, but it must be done safely. Designing a comprehensive regulatory framework will ensure that robot lawyers evolve to best serve the public.

William T. White
Editor – Europe, Legal Technologist magazine

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