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Robots Are Taking Divorce Lawyers’ Jobs, Too
Buyers and sellers on EBay use the site’s automated dispute-resolution tool to settle 60 million claims every year. Now, some countries are deploying similar technology to let people negotiate divorces, landlord-tenant disputes, and other legal conflicts, without hiring lawyers or going to court.
Couples in the Netherlands can use an online platform to negotiate divorce, custody, and child-support agreements. Similar tools are being rolled out in England and Canada. British Columbia is setting up an online Civil Resolution Tribunal this summer to handle condominium disputes; it will eventually process almost all small-claims cases in the province. Until now, says Suzanne Anton, the province’s minister of justice, “if you had a complaint about noise or water coming through your ceiling, you might have to go to the Supreme Court,” spending years and thousands of dollars to get a ruling.
These online legal tools are similar to EBay’s system, which uses algorithms to guide users through a series of questions and explanations to help them reach a settlement by themselves. Like EBay, the services can bring in human adjudicators as a last resort. Several of the new platforms were designed with help from Colin Rule, who started EBay’s dispute-resolution unit in 2004 and ran it until 2011. Soon after leaving EBay, Rule started Modria, a San Jose-based company that markets dispute-resolution software for e-commerce.
Employing online tools to settle routine legal disputes can improve access to justice for people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer, while freeing up court dockets for more complex cases, enthusiasts say. And “citizen expectations are being driven by the private sector,” Rule says. Courts and government agencies that adopt the technology “stand the best chance of keeping their constituents” satisfied, he says.
The Dutch government’s Legal Aid Board has operated a platform called Rechtwijzer (Roadmap to Justice) since 2007 for couples who are separating or divorcing. It handles about 700 divorces yearly and is expanding to cover landlord-tenant and employment disputes.
Couples pay €100 ($111) for access to Rechtwijzer, which starts by asking each partner for their age, income, education, and other information, then guides them through questions about their preferences. Couples with children, for example, are asked whether they want the children to live with only one parent or part time with each.
The platform uses algorithms to find points of agreement, then proposes solutions. There’s a tool to calculate child support and software for drafting agreements. Couples can request a professional mediator for an additional €360 or, if talks break down, a binding decision by an adjudicator. That happens in about 5 percent of cases, says Jin Ho Verdonschot, a lawyer at Dutch nonprofit HiiL who led development of the platform. The organization uses new technologies to improve the justice system.
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