Last week Joshua Browder, the Founder of DoNotPay.com, announced via Twitter that the app now allows anyone in all 50 states to sue any person or business for up to $25,000. According to Mr. Browder’s tweet “The app generates everything from filing documents, a script to read in court and even an entire strategy for when the defendant tries to challenge you.” The service is free.
As I started to read through his Twitter thread describing the new features, it didn’t take long for #LegalTwitter to let their opinions be known. Criticism of how well the app performed aside, a lively contingent of lawyers shouted “Unauthorized Practice of Law!” from the top of their lungs. Rather than recap those arguments in this post, here is a link to the thread.
Could the use of this app constitute the unauthorized practice of law? I don’t know. I am not an expert on UPL. Here are some links to commentary from people who know more on this than I do. Here and here. However, I lean toward the side that it is not.
How is DoNotPay.com much different from the Court Services Centers that are located in courthouses across Massachusetts? I wrote about their services last week. From their website,“The Edward W. Brook Courthouse Court Service Center has computers with access to online resources that are available on a first-come first-served basis. Other services include:
- one-on-one help filling out court forms;
- information about court rules, procedures and practices;
- court documents and written instructions;
- access to interpreter services;
- assistance with legal research; and
- contact information for community resources, legal assistance programs, and social service agencies.”
The two lawyers and small army of volunteers do not representthe 12,000 people who show up at the Court Services Center in Boston every year looking for assistance with their family and housing law cases. They do not give legal advice. They don’t represent them in court.
What do they do? They fill out forms. They provide the litigants with a script on what to say to the judge. They help them with legal research. They help them get their evidence in order. This service is sanctioned and heavily used by the Massachusetts courts. When unprepared pro selitigants come before a judge, judges will send them to the CSC so they can get their case together.
The MA courts recognize the value of services that assist self-represented litigants. The number of people representing themselves is staggering in family and housing law matters. Their ignorance of the law, procedure, and practice inhibits justice and slows down the court. The services of the CSC give them something they otherwise wouldn’t have: knowledge.
I would argue that the DoNotPay app offers a very similar service. If it is not considered unauthorized practice of law in one instance, why should it be in another?
Let’s look at the differences.
- CSC is an in-person service. DoNotPay is an app that users download and use on their phone or tablet. They offer the same service in different ways. Does meeting with a human being vs. getting forms, instructions and information from an app make a difference? It shouldn’t if the service is limited to non-legal advice.
- The CSC is run by lawyers with volunteer assistance. Many of the volunteers are law students and all volunteers receive training on how to help the litigants. We do not know the involvement of lawyers in the app. Having lawyer-assisted assistance mightmake a difference. It gives the courts confidence that users are getting the right help.
- The CSC helps in family and housing matters. The DoNotPay app assists litigants in small claims matters. Should the practice area make a difference? I’m going to make a weird argument here. Maybe it’s me but I would think that a miscarriage of justice is more impactful in housing and family law cases than in small claims matters. In my humble opinion, losing your home or children is certainly more serious that losing $3,000. If the services of the CSC are OK for these serious matters, I think an app might just be OK for small claims matters.
Let me reiterate that judges are relying on the CSC to provide these non-legal advice services. It’s not the ideal situation (i.e. being represented by a lawyer) but the court knows these litigants won’t get lawyers. With the vast majority of parties representing themselves in family and housing matters, the court has provided a service that gives them some help and knowledge.
As I said last week, we have created a legal system for the benefit of the user, and the system always assumes that the user is a lawyer. That assumption is wrong. In civil matters, the user is increasingly the litigant (poor or otherwise). These litigants need tools to help them navigate the system.
If the DoNotPay app works, and there was some criticism that certain features did not work, this would be an innovative tool to help self-represented litigants gain better access to the court system. I applaud Mr. Browder in his attempt to provide such a tool. I encourage legal technologists like him to keep creating solutions and challenging the status quo. The legal system needs them.