Robot Lawyers helping unrepresented people tell their story
A technological innovation by a Melbourne law firm has huge potential to improve unrepresented people’s experience of the Magistrates’ Court, writes Clare Kennedy
For over 25 years, Andrew George and Bill Doogue have been practising at the Magistrates’ Court, seeing unrepresented people struggling to tell their story. ‘For a magistrate trying to get basic information for sentencing, it’s like getting blood from a stone,’ George says.
He tells of a person outside court saying to friends, ‘I’ve lost my licence for a month. How am I going to take my disabled son to school now?’ As George explains, they haven’t even told the magistrate they have a disabled son. Not because they want to hide anything, but because the court environment is pressurised, people are anxious...and they are asked to tell the most intimate parts of their lives before a group of strangers. So, it’s a really difficult environment.
What is Robot Lawyers?
Robot Lawyers is a digital questionnaire which helps people tell their story to the magistrate. It is designed for people who are pleading guilty or want to dispute the facts of their case for certain offences including driving, assault, drug, theft and drink/driving.
Robot Lawyers asks people the kind of information that will help the court when considering the penalty for an offence. So, how does it work?
Before going to court, a person using Robot Lawyers answers online questions. They are then emailed a document based on the answers to those questions. The person then chooses whether to hand the document to the magistrate at court.
'When it comes to people pleading guilty, much of it is about telling your story,’ George says. If someone was at court on a shoplifting charge and pleading guilty, the questionnaire asks the sort of things I would want to know as a lawyer if I was presenting their plea.'
Pushback from the profession?
'We have not had a lot of pushback, but, one question raised by colleagues has been, "Surely you are just taking work from us because this is free?" But I think the real answer is that this group weren’t employing us anyway.
‘So many people can’t afford to pay for a lawyer, and Victoria Legal Aid aren’t doing the work either, because of limited resources. In the past at Sunshine Magistrates’ Court, a duty aid lawyer would be doing ten shoplifting pleas each day. Now they don’t have the time.’
Robot Lawyers went online in November, and up to last Christmas (2016) around 2000 people had looked at the program. The firm doesn’t collect data about individuals who use program to protect the users’ privacy. ‘We didn’t want a situation where we were getting search warrants executed on us by the police.’
Limitations of the program?
The limitations are you must be able to read and write in English and have access to the internet to use Robot Lawyers. However, as George observes, most people have access to the internet on their phones, even people who are struggling financially. And this allows them to fill out the Robot Lawyers form either on a computer or on their phone before sending it to a printer.
If you don't have a printer yourself, you can print your document at a library or legal service, for example.
Uptake by community legal centres?
‘Community legal centres have been really positive.’ In cases where they don’t have the resources to represent someone in court, they can help people fill out the questionnaire and print it, he explains. Has there been any support from the magistracy? Nothing official. ‘However, I think magistrates’ would love it,’ Doogue says. When we have shown various members of the court they were all in favour of it.’
The creators considered the issue of people pleading guilty without having received legal advice. ‘Sure, I think that is a risk, that is why the form tells people at the start that they should get a lawyer and it’s always better to get legal advice,’ Doogue says.
‘As a criminal lawyer or magistrate, it is blindingly obvious this is a good way to deal with people who can’t be represented.'
You can find a link to Robot Lawyers here.
The innovation known as Robot Lawyers was created by criminal law specialists Bill Doogue and Andrew George of Doogue O’Brien George Lawyers.