AI revolution could hit access to justice for people on low incomes

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2 February 2017

Smith: revolution in legal services

Artificial intelligence (AI) could have a knock-on impact on legal services for poorer people, such as weakening pro bono assistance by cutting the number of commercial lawyers, according to a report by Professor Roger Smith.

He also wrote that the impact of the technological revolution in legal services currently underway, such as the growth of online dispute resolution (ODR), was comparable to the changes brought by the provision of state funding for law in the 1970s.

In the latest update on his pioneering work on the digital delivery of legal services to people on low incomes, the solicitor, who is a past director of JUSTICE, also warned that despite the great potential of chatbots, they were only as good as their substantive content.

He also suggested that the product of hackathons, while a welcome contribution by enthusiastic youngsters, was unlikely to solve intractable access to justice problems.

Separately, he welcomed an Australian report on the failure of a phone app aimed at young people as a valuable illustration of how technology can fail to deliver what it promised.

Professor Smith pointed out there was little direct application of AI in legal services for people on low incomes, but there could be unexpected consequences from its increasing adoption elsewhere in the law; for example, “a potential reduction in the number of commercial lawyers and a consequent diminishment in the pro bono assistance which is obtainable from their sector of the profession”.

He also anticipated possible direct impacts, such as “for example in relation to how AI transforms legal research – particularly in  common law, precedent-based jurisdictions”.

He observed that a revolution in legal services was being wrought – for good and ill – by a number of “drivers for change”. Effects included a potentially changing clientele, where some of the legal problems of the poor would change as the labour and housing markets altered.

A key driver was adoption of technology by large commercial law firms, which would “undoubtedly seep in” gradually to the field of poverty law. Another driver was government backing for ODR.

The overall impact “will be a revolution in legal services every bit as powerful as that which happened around much of the developed world in the 1970s but with one major difference.

“That revolution was driven by funds largely provided, one way or another, by the state and made use of by commercial forces within the profession. This one is being driven much more by commercial forces.”

He assessed the growth of legal chatbots, for instance DoNotPay by the student Joshua Browder. While the particular application was of use in only a limited number of situations, he concluded nevertheless that “Mr Browder is onto something”.

Although on the one hand it was true to say “a website – even one as potentially exciting as a bot – is as good as its substantive content”, Professor Smith continued: “Imagine how advice provision could be transformed if you could just chat with a bot on Facebook or any other form of social media about your problem and its possible solution.”

On the subject of hackathons, he was sceptical yet at the same time “essentially positive”, observing: “The technology is new and fun and malleable: the substance is old and gritty and intractable – solutions probably need money and engagement that is all too often not forthcoming…

“Ultimately, it is better to have excited groups of young people – if they can bear it – recognising, discussing and seeking to solve issues about access to justice than to leave the field to the sober despair of the initiated.”

Finally, the solicitor was enthusiastic about a ‘warts and all’ report by the Australian state of Victoria on a phone app it created in 2013, Below the Belt, to teach young people about sex, selfies and cyberbullying. It was, he said, a rare detailed explanation of an app that failed on a number of levels to gain traction with its target audience.

The app, which was live for under a year, was installed by fewer than 1,100 people, uninstalled by 849 of them, and just 40 young people created accounts. The unusually frank discussion of failure was welcome, said Professor Smith: “You might almost say that the value of the project was saved by the evaluation of its failure.”

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