Who regulates robots?
Developments in technology over the past few years have revolutionised the way consumers operate, and this is starting to have some pretty interesting effects on the legal industry.
A particularly exciting technological development is the emergence of online access to free legal help. One free help site which holds immense potential to transform the legal industry is the site created by a 19 year-old student called Joshua Browder.
The site helps to advise claimants on a range of low-level legal issues such as reclaiming Payment Protection Insurance (PPI), seeking compensation for flight delays and fighting parking tickets. This differs from other online legal advice sites such as AskALawyer and Lawyers Online because instead of relying on real life legal professionals to provide advice to site users, Browder’s site uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to advise potential claimants. This ‘robot lawyer’ asks users formatted questions and is designed to respond to answers given by claimants, before deciding if there is a valid claim. This is then automatically processed on behalf of the claimant.
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Since its launch in September 2015, the site has had over 150,000 visits. The site can process a parking fine appeal in just 30 seconds and so far the website has succeeded in 40% of appeals. Browder estimates that he has managed to save people over £2 million in parking fines and counting.
AI is the intelligence exhibited by machines and software allowing them to interact and learn in a similar capacity to human beings. On the DoNotPay site, the more the robot converses with and advises claimants, the more it improves its advisory and conversation skills allowing an ever-improving service (in theory). The site originally started advising claimants to reclaim parking fines and has grown to include advice on other issues. Browder also has plans to expand the site to handle basic immigration queries in Arabic.
So far, so good, and — especially with legal aid cuts reducing the general public’s access to justice — anything which gives the public free and easy access to legal advice can only be a good thing.
But the popularity of the site raises some interesting issues. Who actually regulates the ‘robot lawyer’? As you can see, it wasn’t quite able to answer this question for me just yet…
The site itself does not seem to be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority or any other body, so if in the event the advice given by the ‘robot lawyer’ is incorrect or causes harm or loss to the claimant what would happen?
The most likely scenario is that it would be answerable to the newly introduced Consumer Rights Act 2015, in particular s49 which implies a term into any consumer service contract that a service is to be provided with reasonable skill and care. On the surface it would also have to comply with the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, but one of the exceptions to the regulations is “the representation of a client and defence of his or her interests before courts”, which may well apply here. So it appears that users only have limited forms of redress against the site itself in the event that anything does go wrong.
So, on balance, the site appears to be helping a lot of people gain access to legal advice for various everyday issues and has been reasonably successful in fighting the corner of the man on the street against the authorities. People who have taken advantage of the services provided by the site have reclaimed significant amounts of money.
But if the ‘advice’ given by the robot turns out to be defective then it appears that the consumer has few options available with which to protect themselves. This is an issue that needs serious consideration, and fast. If not then does anyone have Optimus Prime’s phone number?
Mark O’Neill is a student at the Open University.