Hope, Hype, Equifax and Joshua Browder

You cannot keep Joshua Browder down. The Stanford student’s DoNotPay parking ticket bot obtained worldwide coverage to die for. As a previous blog acknowledged, ‘Mr Browder is clearly a dab hand and marketing’. That was no understatement. He moved on to covering asylum claims (Chatbot that overturned 160,000 parking claims now helping refugees claim asylum’ Guardian) and has now thrown himself into the major Equifax data breach in the US (equally well publicised) with a bot that helps users to issue a small claim for breach of their privacy. Richard Tromans, founder of the Artificial Lawyer website and a thoughtful commentator on the advance of technology in the law, has just posted an analysis of Mr Browder’s latest venture. It is worth reading.

James Browder is a Marmite kind of guy and it is difficult to steer a middle way in forming an option of what he is doing. He himself is rather attracted to hyperbole. The Washington Post quotes him as saying: ‘“I want to make the law free for all consumers,” he said, noting that his long-term goal is too “upend” the legal profession. “Lawyers are charging huge amounts of money for doing very little, so I decided to launch a product that will make all small-claims litigation free.”’ So, he has two targets: Equifax (which is apparently aspires to bankrupt) and lawyers (ditto). You may either – depending on your orientation – want to cheer or  jeer. Mr Tromans makes a creditable stab at examining what Mr Browder is offering and seeking a balanced appreciation.

None of Mr Browder’s products are particularly sophisticated. They do not use artificial intelligence in any meaningful way – although much media coverage often suggests otherwise. Nor do the guided pathways down which his bots send users involve much legal advice (in the US, they probably could not anyway). They direct you to claims procedures and help you fill out the appropriate form in an appropriate way. Mr Tromans concluded that this was best described as ‘justice sign-posting’ or a ‘justice empowerment’. They do not ‘replace or remove lawyers – yet’, if only because ‘none were ever going to be part of a small claim in any case’. That is not necessarily a criticism of what is provided (though it is of the hype): ‘DoNotPay has filled a gap in the way justice is delivered, by helping people to access systems lawyers put in place to allow such claims to be made. Browder is in effect acting as a promoter and cheerleader for access to justice channels.’

So, the positive of Mr Browder’s contribution is that he ‘has brought it all together, he’s publicised it, he’s got people engaged, he’s helped people feel they can do something about getting justice’. The weakness is that this is a far more limited aim than is actually presented. It certainly is not going to put lawyers out of business: he has done little more than put an approachable front end on existing systems and websites.

The real questions surround the future. On the one hand, a lot of the coverage of DoNotPay and the Equinox bots are sheer exaggeration. And this could be dangerous if significant numbers of users find that their cases are much more difficult to solve than they were led to believe. Or if governments started to argue that a couple of bots might supplant more conventional assistance for those on low incomes with legal problems. On the other hand, it may be completely valid to argue that these simple beginnings will precipitate more sophisticated developments and that this is the way that progress is made. Why, is it not the very essence of ‘agile’ development? Better to put your toe in the water than sneer from beach.

Lighter touch regulation may mean England and Wales is actually a better place than the US for automated legal assistance of the kind prefigured by Mr Browder’s bots. No prohibitions on unauthorised practice of law here. And it would be good to see some of the voluntary sector providers talking up the challenge; getting some funding; and following Mr Browder’s lead in exploring what could be done through bots that help people with claim procedures of various kinds. Indeed, the introduction of the Online Solutions Court may open up an opportunity in opportunities to help users frame their applications appropriately.  For the moment, we could leave much of the hype on the other side of the Atlantic. Some of the enthusiasm, however, would be handy.

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