Kafka’s Chatbot

Would anyone help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? There must have been some. The logic cannot be refuted, but someone who wants to live will not resist it. Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? —Franz Kafka, The Trial


Toiling away, hidden deep in an Amazon data center, is the most prolific adjudicator ever. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until your parking ticket has been evaluated.

Called the DoNotPay bot, this “chatbot” service has helped hundreds of thousands of people adjudicate their parking tickets in New York and London. If you feed it the proper responses in a guided discussion, this automated service will help with challenging parking tickets. In 21 months, it has taken on 250,000 cases and won 160,000 of them. That’s a 64% success rate, saving people from paying approximately $2.5 million in parking fines.

The bot’s creator is now expanding the service to help with landlord and tenant disputes.

DoNotPay bot is not the only bot exploding into productivity. Since its introduction, chatbot applications have been appearing with increasing frequency. In addition to non-legal bots that let you order Domino’s pizza via texts messages or Facebook Messenger, or find new music via The Edit’s ReplyYes bot, legal bots are becoming more common.

LawTrades uses a bot interface in Slack to match potential clients and lawyers.

LawBot is a service being built by students in Cambridge, England. It focuses on 26 types of criminal offenses. According to the LawBot website, “If you think you may have been the victim of a crime, simply talk to LawBot to learn more about the criminal law and how it applies to you.” Several blawgers have published articles on their online interactions (some crudely humorous) with attempting to report fictitious crimes and receiving guidance from a weak AI.

All of these chatbot legal services have been established by private entities. Government bodies and agencies are also resorting to bot interactions to help people with disputes. Many jurisdictions are starting to release their own chatbots to help people with family disputes, wills and personal planning, property disputes and more.

The most widespread and longest-used publicly funded chatbot is Rechtwijzer Uit Elkaar, an online platform in the Netherlands. Rechtwijzer was developed in conjunction with the Raad voor Rechtsbijstand (Dutch Legal Aid Board) and with financing from the Ministerie van Veiligheid. While the Rechtwijzer has existed for at least 10 years, for almost two years the service has been an online dispute resolution platform.

In the Netherlands, the Rechtwijzer platform is used for divorce, debt, and landlord-tenant disputes (in beta). Rechtwijzer now handles 5% of the divorces in the Netherlands. It costs a couple on average 400€ to go through the entire divorce process with Rechtwijzer, compared to traditional costs of upwards of 3000€. Separation agreements are drafted from answers given by parties in a “guided pathway” chatbot. To date, these AI-drafted separation agreements have a 100% approval rate with the courts.

In addition to their cost savings and approval rate, parties in Rechtwijzer have expressed the following sentiments with the platform:

  • 84% of uses felt Rechtwijzer gave them more control over their separation,
  • 79% of users report the process to be fair to at least a great extent,
  • 70% of users report the results led to effective and sustainable solutions, and
  • 23 hours was the average amount of time spent working on the separation agreement.

The success of Rechtwijzer in the Netherlands has led to similar services, built on the same platform, being released globally. In collaboration with the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), British Columbia recently launched MyLawBC to help parties with divorce, family violence, and even missed mortgage payments. The service is hosted by ODR-provider Modria, and funded and maintained by BC’s Legal Services Society, a statutorily created non-profit organization backed by the provincial government. In Britain, the private-company Relate UK will be using the chat platform to help parties in Britain.

These online chatbot platforms are cheaper and eaiser to scale than in-person justice services. MyLawBC was launched with one-time limited funding. Compare that to the similar costs of hiring competent legal professionals to represent parties, physical facilities to house them, and court services to help the process.  In Canada, 60% of divorces are uncontested with no issues related to children or spousal support. While family law cases only comprise one-thired of civil cases, they account for nearly half of court events, including 56% of judgments and 61% of hearings. Services like Rechtwijzer and MyLawBC are budget-friendly investments in reducing courts’ workloads while extending access to justice to any litigants with an internet connection. Expect their use to expand as legislatures fund technology services rather than courtrooms.

There’s a profound difference between publicly funded chatbot systems and private systems. Systems like Rechtwijzer provide assistance from legal professionals. There is an exit process that is concurrent and supported by existing legal structures. Assistance is available if necessary. Separation agreements need to be authorized by a court to be official.

Compare these support and enablement actions with private chatbot legal services. If the weak AI of LawBot does not recognize your crime or locale, a person may think they have no legal recourse. If DoNotPay bot does not recognize a future complaint against a landlord, a tenant may be denied both their day in court and a place to live. While the capabilities of chatbots continues to expand, they cannot be allowed to replace the discretion of courts in dispensing justice.

About the Author

Joshua Lenon is an attorney and the lawyer-in-residence for Clio, providing legal scholarship and research skills to the leading cloud-based practice management platform from Vancouver, Canada.

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