Dear Landlord: please heed these words that I speak

Dear Landlord is the title of an enigmatic Dylan song over which controversy still rages as to whether it is primarily addressed to his agent or his God, with both of whom he had fallen out at the time of writing. Dear Landlord is also the title of an interesting project just launched to assist tenants in rent arrears in the Australian state of Victoria.

The app is interesting not only for its content but also for its genesis. It arose out of a tech challenge for members of a justice and leadership programme assisted by a law firm, Allens, and a tech firm, Neota Logic. This, New York based but with a global presence, promotes its technology as consisting ‘of an AI-powered platform and comprehensive toolset that allows professionals to rapidly build and deploy application solutions that automate their expertise, increasing productivity, improving client satisfaction and creating new business opportunities’. 

The team of participants worked for five months with Justice Connect – a pro bono organisation formed in 2013 by amalgamating Public Interest Clearing Houses in New South Wales and Victoria. This kind of supported assistance over time on a serious project that actually comes to fruition represents a desirable evolution from the razzamatazz of a weekend hackathon which can often leave little behind but empty pizza boxes and red bull cans. It is similar in form to the way that the Innovating Justice Challenge of the Hague Institute for Innovation in Law is assisting developers in Africa and other countries where the competitive element is tempered by training and assistance.

The app is described thus: ’Dear Landlord will help you understand the eviction process, what your options are and what rights you have as a tenant to stay in the property. If you choose, Dear Landlord can also help you draft a letter to your landlord to negotiate for you to stay in the property. Or if you missed a hearing it will help you to prepare a review application to VCAT to have your hearing re-heard.’ All this is located within a range of personal help which may be also be available. 

Dear Landlord offers assistance in a variety of situations – from which it invites you to choose, ranging from being about to miss a payment to reporting that the police have just visited the property. On the basis of your answers, it constructs an appropriate letter or application. Helpfully, the pages come ready populated with fictional personal data so that you can easily make up a case to test the system. This is worth doing to get a flavour of how it works. It seems robust; fairly simple (I doubt if there is much flashy artificial intelligence here: you would need only guided pathways). And you can end up with a personalised letter – as in the domestic examples of SeAp’s disability benefit appeal letter or AdviceNow’s mandatory reconsideration of PIP tool. The interactive self-filling form movement has probably gone furthest in the United States with the centralised funding by the Legal Services Corporation of A2j author and LawHelp Interactive – but much of the US emphasis seems to have been on court forms rather than correspondence. So, it will be interesting to see how well assistance at this point in the process can work.

Intuitively, the incorporation of this type of provision should be helpful. To know this more definitively, we need some data on how useful these self assembly forms are in practice. One suspects that there are also a lot of lessons to be learnt cross-jurisdictionally about presentation and the optimum extent of background information and explanation to give. On outcomes, there may be difficulties. The Justice Connect app specifically reassures users that it does not collect information on them. And this conforms with‘s similar stance against information collection. Users seem to respond positively to this kind of reassurance – more so probably in future in the light of the Facebook revelations. But it may impede us knowing just how effective these self-assembly letters can be. Providers will know, presumably, how many forms are completed and used: that may be the best information we can get. In the meantime, let us hope that others will follow Justice Connect – which, not content with this initiative, is imminently about to launch a Legal Help Gateway as a web portal for pro bono legal services with assistance from the Google Impact Challenge.  Both projects are unlikely to match the fame of Dylan’s song but, if they are successful,  they will be considerably clearer.

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