Like many people, Joshua Browder is fond of saying that the legal system only works for the rich, and parking tickets hurt the poor. But unlike many others, he’s doing something about it. He’s providing free legal “advice” through a chat bot named DoNotPay – and says he’s helped drivers in the United States and United Kingdom beat 200,000 parking tickets, and counting.
Soon, tenants in half a dozen cities across the United States will be able to use his tool to fight with landlords, too.
Browder, a 19-year-old Stanford computer science student, has written software that he calls the world’s first robot lawyer. After a quick registration, anyone can try it out on his website, DoNotPay.co.uk.
Not surprisingly, Browder became a bit of an instant cult hero a year ago when DoNotPay was launched in his native United Kingdom, where London parking tickets are an urban nightmare. He’s slowly adding support for U.S. cities – and got another round of attention recently when he was featured on stage with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty at the firm’s Watson Developer Conference.
A Great Legal Equalizer?
While DoNotPay began as a ticket-fighting tool, Browder has already expanded it to other consumer-critical issues, like landlord-tenant disputes and airline compensation. Now he’s working to include even more ambitious kinds of assistance, such as automated legal help for Syrian refugees.
“Automated legal services are bigger than just a few parking tickets,” Browder said during his Watson presentation. “Over 80% of people who need a lawyer can’t afford one.”
DoNotPay works in part because — as any lawyer will tell you, off the record— much of lawyerly work is formulaic. It takes only a few moments and a quick game of 20 questions for DoNotPay to generate a traffic ticket appeal letter. The bot uses Waton’s Natural Language Classifier to interpret user answers. It asks if posted signs were unclear, for example (is there a parking sign in New York that is clear?), then generates an appeal letter based on the answers.
While drivers could do this for themselves— they could find sample form letters online— many don’t bother, perhaps because they lack the confidence to do so. Given that, Browder’s tool has the potential to be a great legal equalizer.
“Our goal … is to democratize the use of this technology to solve really great problems, like what you are solving,” IBM’s Rometty said at the conference.
Still Working Out Some Kinks
DoNotPay isn’t perfect, however. Several times when I asked for help with parking tickets, it directed me toward help with housing issues. That’s to be expected from a website trying to process natural language in real time. The tool is a long way from being able to competently handle anything more than simple offenses and the most rote legal tasks.
Still, governments that rely on compliant citizens to pay “gotcha” fines to bolster revenues certainly have something to fear from DoNotPay — as do professionals who charge $250 an hour to cut and paste legal language into complaints.
If you’ve received a parking ticket, whether you believe it is unfair or not, it’s important to address it quickly. In some municipalities, unpaid tickets — even small amounts — are sent to collection agencies (if you’re curious about how old the ticket can be and still be sent to collections, here are the state statutes of limitations). Ignore tickets long enough in some municipalities and you could get your driver’s license suspended. If you’ve already had a ticket sent to a collection agency, you can see how that’s impacting your credit by checking your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You may also want to check out your credit reports to see what other negative information might be hurting your credit.
Here is my Q&A with Browder.
Bob Sullivan: Why did you start all this?
Joshua Browder: At the age of 18, the legal driving age in the U.K., I got a large number of parking tickets. Out of necessity (I couldn’t afford to pay), I had to become a “local parking guru.” As a side project, I decided to create a chat bot to help my family and friends appeal their tickets. I could never have imagined that just one year later, the site would have successfully appealed over 200,000 tickets (over $5 million worth), making me realize that this issue was bigger than a few parking charges.
BS: C’mon … a piece of software can’t get someone out of a parking ticket, can it?
JB: It can because the process is so formulaic. It starts by asking a few questions about the ticket, which the user can answer in his or her own words; for example, “Were the signs hard to understand?” Once it knows the legal issue, it then takes down a few details, such as the road name and ticket number, and then places these details into a legally sound document, which can be sent directly to the local authorities.
BS: What does the existence of DoNotPay say about Western legal systems that we all think of as fair?
JB: There are so many lawyers charging hundreds of dollars for doing little more than copying and pasting documents, I am surprised that they have not yet replaced been replaced by technology. There are lots of good lawyers out there, but I think the ones exploiting people should be very worried.
BS: And what does it say about your legal system that a ‘robot’ can ‘beat’ it?
JB: I like to think of the law as society’s operating system. It is based on rules and information, something that technology is extremely good at replacing. I think we live in a society where those with the most resources, the rich, can get the best legal help. With free ‘robot’ lawyers, I ultimately hope to level the playing field so that any citizen can get the same standard of legal access as a billionaire. Obviously it’s a long way from that, but the law is so formulaic and I think it’s possible.
BS: Now, the American questions. What is the status of a potential U.S. version of DoNotPay?
JB: It currently works in the whole of the U.K., New York City and Seattle for parking tickets. I am rapidly expanding to make it available across the United States.
BS: I know you have your sights set on bigger things. What other legal troubles, outside parking tickets, will future versions of your app ‘fight’ for me?
JB: It currently works for over half a dozen areas of the law, including:
- Parking tickets (U.K., New York City and Seattle)
- Fighting evictions and repossessions (U.K.)
- Flight Delays (European Union).
- Fighting your landlord for an unprepared property (U.K.)
- Delayed trains (U.K.)
- Helping those with HIV with their legal issues (U.K.)
I am actually expanding to California [San Francisco and Los Angeles], Chicago, Denver and St Louis … allowing tenants to fight their landlords for un-repaired properties and security deposits that haven’t been returned.
BS: Finally, I’m a lawyer. (I’m not, but I’m pretending to be for this question.) Should I be scared? What does DoNotPay say about AI/robots and the future of white-collar work?
JB: Absolutely. Some lawyers say ‘it is not possible. The law is too complicated. We can never be replaced.’ But, as a 19 year old working on my own, I already have a lot of lawyers who don’t like me. I know that there are thousands of programmers with decades more experience than me working on similar issues.