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Robot lawyer helping asylum seekers

10 March 20170 comments

A computer program dubbed ‘the robot lawyer’ is giving free legal aid to refugees seeking asylum in the US, Canada and the UK.

The program, a ‘chatbot’ which allows conversations via voice or text, was the brainchild of Stanford University student Joshua Browder, who has already used to help 160,000 people overturn parking fines.

Joshua Browder

Originally called ‘DoNotPay’, the program gives free legal aid to users through a simple-to-use chat interface.

Now, it is using Facebook Messenger to help refugees fill in an immigration application in the US and Canada. For those in the UK, it helps them apply for asylum support.

The London-born developer worked with lawyers in each country, as well as speaking to asylum seekers whose applications have been successful.

Mr Browder said he had been working on the asylum seeker component for more than six months.

“I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue,” Mr Browder told the media.

“I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it. That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right,” he said.

Mr Browder said he began working on this project before Donald Trump’s election as US President.

He said he feels it is now more important now than ever.

“I wanted to add Canada at the last minute because of the changes in the political background in the US,” he said.

The chatbot works by asking the user a series of questions, in order to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law.

After this, it takes down the necessary details required for the appropriate asylum application forms in the US and Canada. In the UK, asylum seekers are told they need to apply in person, and the bot helps fill out an form for asylum support.

Mr Browder says it was crucial the questions were in plain English.

“The language in these forms can be quite complicated,” he said.

The 20-year-old chose Facebook Messenger as a home for the latest incarnation of his robot lawyer because of accessibility.

“It works with almost every device, making it accessible to over a billion people,” he said.

Mr Browder said he planned to make the service available in more languages and he is currently working on translating it into Arabic.

‘DoNotPay’ was initially a free service that guided people with parking fines through the appeals process.

The chatbot was later programmed to deal with other legal issues, such as claiming for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance.

It also helps with housing issues. The homelessness bot has had more than 3,000 users, with more than 240,000 messages sent and received.

Mr Browder runs DoNotPay alongside his studies at Stanford.

“My degree has become a bit of a side project these days,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist