An app, Legal Tune Up, developed for a Not for Profit consortium, has attracted the praise of the doyen of US legal tech commentators. Bob Ambrogi reported its launch earlier this month. He called it ‘unique’. It is, indeed, impressive and hopefully a forerunner of the sort of development of which we will see more. Its creation and operation also raise an interesting set of questions.
The app was developed by an organisation called LIFT Dane. The initials stand for Legal Interventions for Transforming Dane. Dane is Dane County, Wisconsin’s largest and including its capital, Madison. Close US presidential election watchers may recognise it as the site of one of the federal court legal challenges to President-elect Biden’s recent win. Associated Press reported: ‘The plaintiffs allege without evidence that absentee voting is rife with widespread fraud and that votes in those counties should not be included in the state’s final election certification, which would give Wisconsin to President Donald Trump. The plaintiffs allege voters in the three counties may have bypassed state law requiring voters to provide a photo ID by declaring themselves “indefinitely confined” due to the coronavirus pandemic.’ Dane County may, thus, play its part in a wider history of global importance.
LIFT Dane is a collaboration involving a number of organisations involved in legal aid. Its focus is very much on the potential economic benefits of civil legal assistance. Its mission is ‘to provide efficient, technology driven legal assistance to clear civil legal barriers to economic prosperity for Dane County families, to transform legal and court systems to prevent economic drags, and to contribute to national reform movements to improve access to civil legal justice.’ The app was developed very much within this objective. It is designed to assist in the removal (or expungement) of public records that inhibit employment. LIFT Dane’s director Marsha Mansfield explains, ‘’Users will be able to see if they have old eviction and criminal records on Wisconsin’s online public records database, Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) that are eligible for removal, and the app will automate creation and filing of the appropriate paperwork with the court. It also will allow users to apply for free employment and training services.”’
The app was built by Theory and Practice, a legal technology firm run by Nicole Bradick. She is an activist voice for legal tech in the access to justice field and has spoken at various LegalGeek conferences in (or, as this year, from) the UK.
The funding came from Schmidt Futures, a charity founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt. You will remember Eric Schmidt. He used to run Google and, in 2013, had a run in with Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee, on his company’s (non) payment of tax. She called Google’s actions ‘calculated and unethical’, saying ‘“I think that you do do evil in that you use smoke and mirrors to avoid paying tax.” He later ‘defiantly defended his company’s tax avoidance strategy claiming he was “proud” of the steps it had taken to cut its tax bill which were just “capitalism” … Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, confirmed the company had no intention of paying more to the UK exchequer. Documents filed last month show that Google generated around £2.5 billion in UK sales last year but paid just £6m in corporation tax.’ To be fair to Mr Schmidt, his full argument is that tax laws are the responsibility of politicians: ”If the British system changes the tax laws, then we will comply. If the taxes go up, we will pay more, if they go down, we will pay less. That is a political decision for the democracy that is the United Kingdom”‘ he told the BBC.’
The app – which hopefully will prove a good use of the foundation’s funds – has three components. It will: ‘• Access public data to identify and assist users to clear eligible records • Auto-fill legal forms for court filings • Direct people to the free legal services they may need.’
It is difficult to test the app’s practical effectiveness without being a Wisconsin resident subject to relevant restrictions. I can report that it efficiently reported that an applicant bearing my name (but, out of inveterate prudence) a false date of birth had no relevant criminal or eviction records. The app is subject to further development to cover child support and driving licence records.
The app’s ability to interrogate public records and then automatically fill in legal forms relating to them is the interesting bit – as well as combining that with signposting to free assistance. There must be other opportunities for this kind of combination around the world. We do need some research into how well it actually works. There are likely to be lessons here for us all. And behind it lies another question of general application. This is an app which facilitates a process instigated by a user in relation to a public body. The individual needs to take the initiative to begin the process which, once begun, should be fairly automatic. Is this not exactly the thing that public bodies should be building into their systems in the first place so that they operate automatically?
Mr Ambrogi is right. This seems to be an impressive app. It also does raise interesting questions.