How a robot lawyer overturned 160,000 parking tickets

A chatbot created by 19-year-old student Joshua Browder has successfully appealed 160,000 cases in New York and London for free.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A parking policeman writes out a ticket for an illegally parked car in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2014. An artificially intelligent chatbot created by a Standford University student has successfully appealed 160,000 parking tickets in New York and London for free, raising new hopes for how the technology could help people resolve disputes.

Artificially intelligent chatbots can book flights, answer queries, and carry on conversations. Now, a 19-year-old programmer has added another skill – helping people resolve legal disputes over parking tickets.

DoNotPay, a chatbot billed as the "world's first robot lawyer" has successfully contested 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York for free, appealing over $4 million in parking fees, according to The Guardian.

But can technology really come to replace human lawyers? That might be a more daunting task, especially because the idea of robots providing subjective legal advice could raise ethical issues.

"There are ethical and legal limits to what [robots] can do. Programs such as this one do not, at least in my humble opinion, threaten the legal profession writ large," Bradley Moss, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who works on national security issues told TechInsider. "They will, however, continue to streamline processes for handling simple tasks that arguably people should be able to handle without the need for – and expense of – formal legal assistance."

One of those tasks is the often-tedious process of searching for documents and organizing them during the pretrial discovery process, something that can often take months in complex cases.

But a potential issue is that many documents must be reviewed for legal privilege, or whether a document can be turned over from one party to another in a lawsuit, Karl Bayer, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, told The Christian Science Monitor in March.

"Until we get machines that are smart enough to look for and understand the legal implications of a particular email or document or voicemail message, I think lawyers being lawyers and clients being clients, somebody’s going to have to actually go through and make sure it's OK to produce it," Mr. Bayer, who is often hired to oversee the electronic discovery process, told the Monitor. 

Joshua Browder, a second year-student at Stanford University who created DoNotPay, argues government regulation could also be an obstacle to further technological advances.

In an interview with TechCrunch, he cited Uber's conflict with the city of Austin, where voters upheld a rule requiring ridehailing services to fingerprint drivers as part of a background check. Uber and rival Lyft later pulled out of the city

"Well I think you need regulation sometimes, but ultimately regulation is harmful to innovation," Browder said

After successfully resolving 160,000 tickets out of a total of 250,000 cases it has taken on in the past 21 months, the bot isn't quite Perry Mason, the TV lawyer who famously won nearly every case.

But eventually, Browder says, he hopes to expand the bot's simple chat-based interface to take on more complex issues such as helping refugees navigate foreign legal systems and aiding people who are HIV positive in understanding their rights.

"As a 19-year-old, I have coded the entirety of the robot on my own, and I think it does a reasonable job of replacing parking lawyers," he told TechInsider, noting that he was first inspired to create the bot after receiving 30 parking tickets of his own.

The bot uses a series of text-based queries to determine whether an appeal is possible, asking users questions such as whether there were clearly visible parking signs, then guides users through the appeals process, The Guardian reports.

Beyond those efforts, he has also been exploring a developer platform that requires legal knowledge, not a coding background, to dispense simple legal advice, in a bid to lower legal fees.

And in the United States, the law firm Baker & Hostetler announced in March that it had "retained" IBM's legal-bot ROSS to assist with bankruptcy cases.

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