Robo-Lawyers and the rise of chatbots

Image: Lukas Krasa- Flickr
Ingrid Fadelli

A chatbot that overturned 160,000 parking fines is now helping refugees claim asylum

Chatbots are reaching new frontiers of innovation, turning what once appeared to be remote possibilities into reality.

DoNotPay, a new Facebook messenger chatbot that was originally created to assist people in overturning parking fines, is the latest example of this.

It has so far assisted around 250,000 people in challenging parking fees, with 160,000 of these actually being overturned.

Now, the clever lawyer-bot has a new feature that is assisting refugees with their applications for asylum in the US, Canada and the UK, saving them the dread of unaffordable lawyer fees.

In a world with so many different legal systems, where too many people require legal advice but are unable to afford the sometimes astronomical lawyers’ fees that come with it, robot lawyers could be a real game changer. And, it’s free!

What is DoNotPay?

DoNotPay was created by 20-year old Stanford student, Joshua Browder, who describes it as the “world’s first robot lawyer”.

The name, DoNotPay tells us that advice that would otherwise have to be paid for can now be accessed for free through an easy-to-use Messenger bot.

“I want to make it as recognizable as possible so people understand that they don’t have to pay lawyers huge amounts of money for just copying and pasting documents”, Brower told Business Insider .

Originally, DoNotPay was designed to assist people who were challenging parking fees, but its legal knowledge has now been broadened to provide support in a wider range of legal situations.

For instance, the bot can provide advice for people seeking compensation for delayed flights or trains, as well as those in need of housing-related or HIV-relevant legal advice. In August 2016, it also started helping people with housing issues.

The bot offers free legal advice to its users through a fairly intuitive chat interface that can be easily accessed through Facebook Messenger.

A bot to help asylum seekers

To develop the functions that are now assisting some of the world’s most vulnerable, Browder worked with lawyers in the US, UK and Canada, while also speaking to asylum seekers whose applications had been successful.

Now, the chatbot is offering advice on how to fill in application forms for immigration and asylum support in the those countries.

Browder told the Guardian: “I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months – I initially wanted to do it in the summer. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue,” Browder told The Guardian. “I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it. That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right.”

The chatbot asks users a series of questions and uses the answers it receives to determine what application form is suitable for their specific situation, and whether they are eligible for asylum protection under international law.

Once this stage is completed, it takes down all details necessary for the asylum application (I-589 in the United States, and Canadian Asylum Application in Canada). Asylum-seekers in the UK are told they will need to apply in person, but the bot helps them fill out ASF1 forms for asylum support.

In other words, the bot provides that basic legal support that could make a real difference in whether an application for asylum is rejected or approved.

In a phone interview with Business Insider, Browder said: “There’s this huge problem among immigration lawyers where the majority of their time is spent filling out forms rather than actually challenging the legal complexities of the case. So what this does, is it takes down hundreds of details from individuals and automatically fills out [necessary forms]”.

The bot asks questions in simple English, cutting through the nerve-wrecking legal jargon that applicants would find on the application forms.

Another brilliant aspect of DoNotPay is that it takes care of protecting the users’ information, deleting their data from servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot.

Details used to fill in the forms are also deleted once the application has been submitted.

“Once the form is sent off, the details are deleted from my end,” Browder told The Guardian.

What’s next?

So far, DoNotPay is only available on Facebook Messenger, the platform chosen by the young developer due to its high accessibility.

However, Browder is well aware that, unlike other chat apps, Messenger is not end-to-end encrypted. He said: “Ideally I would love to expand to WhatsApp when their platform opens up, particularly because it’s popular internationally”.

To provide help to those who don’t speak fluent English, Browder would also like to ensure that the bot is able to communicate in other languages. He is currently working on integrating Arabic into the DoNotPay’s user interface.

In little time, this smart Robo-Lawyer went from overturning parking tickets to providing legal help that could seriously change the lives of those in very difficult situations.

This a clear example of just how far Artificial Intelligence and the latest technological tools can take us, especially when applied to real-life situations where a little extra help could make a huge difference in people’s lives.

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