Legal automation can lead to more justice and fewer lawyers

A lawyerbot called Do Not Pay helps people contest parking tickets. In London and New York, it helped people overturn 160,000 tickets in its first 21 months. Its creator, 19-year-old London-born Stanford student Joshua Browder observed: “I think the people getting parking tickets are the most vulnerable in society. These people aren’t looking to break the law. I think they’re being exploited as a revenue source by the local government.”

There’s not much doubt about that. Local governments pretend it’s about safety, but use traffic fines for revenue. Those fines fall hardest on poor people, for whom a $150 fine is a financial disaster and for whom an appearance in court is frightening and awkward. Often, a few citations, with interest and penalties accruing, can be the beginning of a downward spiral leading to bankruptcy or jail.

* local and other governments use legal and regulatory complexity to create advantages to those who can afford better lawyers
* tax software can enable lower cost compliance and legal software and automation can provide affordable defense to common people
* all of this automation is inferior to a society with less or very simple and fair regulation or no regulation
* tax software has been around for a long time and constantly updated and expanded tax laws still makes it difficult for software to take away the complexity. There

Browder is working on other applications, and with good reason: There’s a need. And as Barton and Bibas point out, lawyer-substitutes like software (or paralegals allowed to practice on their own) don’t have to be better than the best lawyers. They only have to be better than what people who can’t afford the best lawyers can get.

This has the potential for social revolution in many ways. It’s bad for the lawyers who lose work to bots. It’s bad for cities who rely on revenue extorted from motorists and other petty offenders to balance the books. (DoNotPay’s 160,000 overturned tickets represented over $4 million in revenue). And it’s bad for any part of the legal system that forces compliance from ordinary people who just don’t want the hassle of going to court.

But it’s good for people who, up to now, haven’t had much leverage. If we’re lucky, we’ll wind up, as Barton and Bibas suggest, with “fewer lawyers, more justice.” For people like me, who sell law degrees for a living, that may be bad news. For society as a whole, though, it may turn out pretty well.