Robot lawyers: an Australian foray into automated document assembly for criminal cases

Robot Lawyers, developed by a defence lawyer firm, Doogue O’Brien George Defence Lawyers of Melbourne, indicates some of the possibilities of automated document assembly for assistance in some criminal cases. There is nothing particular innovative about a legal self-help system of this kind. For example, the American A2J author system has been doing this since 2005 and has generated close on 2m documents. There are various will assembly sites, both commercial and non-profit. But, most development has been in relation to civil cases. This system gives an indication of how programmes might be developed directly for self help users in some minor criminal matters where lawyers would not normally be involved.

As a minor gripe, cranky readers may like to take issue with the name, explained on the sites FAQs by saying ‘we called it Robot Lawyers because we thought that calling it a ‘Basic Conditional Logic and Emailing you a document lawyer’ was a fairly tame name.’ That might be fair enough but the longer title is actually a truer description and ‘automated lawyer’ might be nearer the mark.  The system  is capable of compiling basic mitigation statements in a range of relatively minor criminal cases – driving, assault, drug, theft, drink/drug driving – where, presumably, the likelihood of a custodial sentence is low.

Defendant lawyers will probably be full of reservations about such an automated service and its likely inability to respond to the nuances of individual circumstances.  But, this is the sort of document that you get emailed back to you after answering a short series of online questions:

Personal Information for Roger Smith Drug Case 

My name is Roger Smith 

My date of birth is 19/04/1967. 

I am pleading guilty to a drug charge. 

Employment Status 

I am currently employed as a teacher full time. 

Income Details 

My weekly income / earnings are approximately $ 1,000.00.
I estimate my remaining weekly funds after living expenses to be approximately $ 500.00. 

Relationship Status 

I am married.
I live with my wife.
I have 1 child living with me. 

Community Involvement 

I am involved in the following community activities: I play cricket for a local club. 

Personal Circumstances and Growth 

Reasons for my offending include: I was under strain. 

From my offending, I have learned that:
I should not do it again and I should certainly not be caught. 

I think that going to Court for this offence has changed my attitude and I believe it will be different in future, because:
It has given me a shock. I will change my ways. 

I believe I am not a risk to commit this type of offence in the future because: I cannot afford to be caught again. 

Please ask me any questions if there is further information you require from me. I have prepared this information to make it easier for the Court to decide my penalty and save time for the Court. 

  Thank you for reading my document. 

Roger Smith 

The example shows the strengths and weaknesses of the programme. First and foremost, it undoubtedly facilitates an organised approach to drawing up a statement mitigation and might be of considerable assistance to someone not familiar with this kind of exercise. Second, and this is no criticism (quite the reverse – it indicates the possibilities for further development),  you start to see ways in which it might be improved. For example, you could add a section with details of the offence and why it might have been committed. There are other areas where you might want more details. Third, the programme could be expanded to give a bit more information to the user and thus more help in filling in what might be relevant. Fourth, this way of organising relevant information could easily be combined with consideration by an adviser for whom it organises the client’s information in a helpful way (a product like Siaro integrates the client’s original statement into a programme that prompts the advising solicitor to what they should do).

The statement would evidently be much improved by human intervention by a criminal lawyer. But this is the sort of case where, certainly in England and Wales, you would not get legal aid. The site handles various types of offences where this would also be the expectation – driving, assaults, drugs, theft, drug/drink driving. On being tested with various options, the system did spring into action to warn you to see a lawyer if the case strayed into more complicated or serious areas e.g. if there was a not guilty plea. In most jurisdictions, there would be a representation gap in relation to minor criminal offences and this makes this area a fertile ground for automated programmes like this or, in the traffic field in England and Wales, roadtrafficrepresentation.com. This allows an embellishment with an express advert missing from the Victorian model: ‘Free online assessment of your case can be supplemented by optional paid for one to one telephone advice and representation in court’. But, on balance, the Victorian lawyers have done us all a favour in giving an indication of a potential which will undoubtedly be further developed.

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