Two Expert Systems

The idea of expert systems in law has been around for a number of decades at least and never seems to get much traction. The notion, drastically simplified, is that experts in an area of law analyse it into its components, arrange those components in such a way that it creates a progression of issues leading towards all possible conclusions, and then formulate questions based on this progression which can be posed to a non-expert. Because its meant to be a system, the whole thing has to be set up so that it can operate without the need for (any? constant?) human judgment, which makes a computer program a perfect home for such a tool.

Maybe.

Take a look at Law Underground. It’s the project of a non-profit organization of lawyers and law students in Philadelphia. The idea is the laudable one of bringing the law to the people who need answers free of cost. The demo, for example, is to determine whether “you are eligible for family-sponsored immigration to the United States.”

My problem with the site as it’s set up now is that it gives you no idea whatever as to the range of issues you might inquire about. There’s a search form and even an ability to select “Canada” and one of our provinces as a jurisdiction; but every search term I’ve put in has come up dry. The menu item View Popular Results would lead one to believe that the system can deal with a small portion of immigration law and a small portion of civil rights law affecting searches.

This is a system that needs some old-fashioned table-of-contents work at the front end, and, I think, a much more modest presentation as to its abilities.

Modesty is something that was forced on the maker of the next expert system. Frankfort Digital Services Ltd. offered an online service that let the consumer prepare bankruptcy petitions. Only problem is, says the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [PDF],

Frankfort’s system touted its offering of legal advice and projected an aura of expertise concerning bankruptcy petitions; and, in that context, it offered personalized—albeit
automated—counsel. … We find that because this was the conduct of a non-attorney, it constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

This much was reported in Wired News. Unlike lawyers, however, Wired doesn’t read footnotes. The small-print caveat hanging off that quote from the Court of Appeal reads as follows:

Since we are asked only to consider the facts of the case presented (i.e., Frankfort’s system), we express no view as to whether software alone, or other types of programs, would constitute the practice of law.

Which seems to leave open the possibility of non-self-promoting robots, those who tout not and neither do they bill, perhaps.

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