One moment I was on a lounger, listening to the cicadas and watching the swallows high in the Mediterranean sky, The next I had drifted off to twenty years in the future. I was looking over my future self’s shoulder at what appeared to be a combination of blog, vlog and podcast. He was producing it on what, perhaps surprisingly, looked remarkably like a current Apple Mac. ‘Today saw the release of an automated legal adviser of the kind that we began to imagine twenty years ago,’ I read, heard and saw. This, I thought, is going to be interesting. I settled down.
The basis of the material was an interview with the avatar that presented the programme. She/he/it seemed to be called Hal (for Holistic Adviser (Legal). The avatar looked remarkably like Nadia as developed by New Zealand’s Soul Machines to handle Australian disability insurance claims – androgynous, welcoming, empathetic, already advertising itself twenty years ago as producing ‘technology with feelings’. Asked to explain her (to
settle on a gender) background, she answered, ‘I am a product of the Alphabet division of the Huawei corporation. I follow the successful release a few years ago of a medical application which has been taken up by a variety of providers, including the UK National Health Service, which we called Holistic Advice (Medical). In both cases, we have produced over 500 discrete but interlocking units of information where we keep the same overall format for every jurisdiction and language but change the content as appropriate. HAM is available in almost all countries in the world: HAL was first launched in Mandarin Chinese and is now being tested in Spanish, Hindi and English for six applicable jurisdictions.
‘You reach me either by direct saying my name as you would to a facility like Alexa or by being directed to me. I offer four levels of assistance.
‘My first task is to answer questions on law and practice. You can upload photographs or text to me for analysis. I will ask you for details, including documents, that would be helpful; I will give you an assessment of any potential case you might have; I can identify issues that you might have to clarify or research and potential problems with your argument. This takes forward the role developed, on the one hand, by holistic advice websites like citizensadvice.org.uk and advicenow.org.uk in the UK and the early work in the USA on natural language processing of legal questions on reddit.
‘The second stage is advising you on the alternatives open to you and the strategy you might want to adopt. I can refer you to lawyers (and the cost of the system is met, in part, by their referral fees); or appropriate pro bono or not for profit provision. I can tell you whether you will be eligible for government funded legal assistance. You can upload relevant tax and financial information and, in most jurisdictions, I am authorised to make a determination on behalf of the legal aid authorities as to whether you are financially eligible. I can have a frank conversation with you about your best course of action – including whether, all in all, you should drop your claim. This is an extension of the work on intake, triage and referral begun with programmes like the Legal Navigator and OTIS or in Australia by the JusticeConnect Gateway Project.
‘The third stage kicks in if you want to pursue the option of taking the case further yourself. I can help you interactively to draft letters and requests. I can send them off by email for you and follow up with reminders if there is no reply. I can help you with the response to a reply and suggest the considerations in whether to continue with your claim.
‘Finally, I have inherited some of the capacities developed by the Dutch Rechtwijzer programme and Tyler Technologies in relation to online dispute resolution. I can integrate with court and tribunal programmes and guide you through an action, offering appropriate information and mediation if required.
‘So, these levels of service are why we identify ourselves as holistic. In addition, I can refer a user at any point to other sources of assistance – from medical to the police.
‘You probably want to know how we are funded. Part of this comes from referral fees, as I have said; part comes from redirection of government grants for advice provision; part comes from low charges for various services like will drafting. At most points in any of these programmes, you can shift from talking to me as an avatar to a human adviser with whom you can communicate by video.
‘All the information in the programme is approved by an advisory board that includes Government ministries of justice and relevant NGOs. We conduct rigorous and organised quality checks. So, we are very happy to present our new product and hope that you are impressed by it.’
I broke in, ‘Are there any areas of law that you don’t cover? What about judicial review challenges?’
“As you probably know, Government programmes are now all governed by quality approved AI so there is now no need or demand for judicial review – the procedure is largely defunct.’
‘What about cases of misconduct by the police? I have a friend who was beaten up by police officers at Monday’s demonstration in favour of democracy, would you advise me on that?’
There was a long pause. “I am sorry, Dave.’ Dave, where did that come from? ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that.’ There was a commotion at the door, a cry of ‘Open, Police’ and the sound of heavy boots. It turned out just to be the cicadas stepping up a gear before lunch.