An October update to a mobile phone app offers to allow users to “sue anyone for up to $25,000 by pressing a button.”
The app is called DoNotPay, and while it has been around for some time, the October iteration is the first which claims to allow users to bring new lawsuits without the use of an attorney.
How much are the makers charging for this service? The answer is nothing. The free app, which is currently only available through the Apple app store, is available for use anywhere in the United States and the United Kingdom.
It works by prompting users for their name and address, followed by a request for the size and the type of claim. Users are told to choose from a list of potential claims like negligence, breach of contract, unrefunded deposit, consumer refund and automobile accident.
The app then determines whether the claim is within the state’s limit and generates a demand letter with instructions to send it to the person or entity they are suing. It walks users through the process of filing notice of the suit and even provides scripts that litigants can use in court.
But while the app purports to fill a gap in the justice system by making the filing of small claims more convenient to more people, it also raises ethical questions. For instance, could the service it provides be construed as the unauthorized practice of law? And just as importantly, what if the service doesn’t do what it claims to do? What recourse would users have if they suffered a negative legal consequence as a result of an app error?
Desa Ballard, whose West Columbia practice focuses on professional ethics, said that the app, if it works, would fill a much-needed legal role.
“We want it to work. We want people to have access to the courts,” she said. “It’s a complex field, but everybody wants to make it easy for people to do themselves.”
The app isn’t that different from long-existing resources for pro se litigants that make court documents available upon request, Ballard said. By making this process easier, she said the app gives people who can’t afford the help of an attorney, or who can’t find an attorney to take their case because of cost, the chance to get their day in court.
“It’s hard for a lawyer to justify getting involved in a case with low dollars,” Ballard said. “The potential fee isn’t enough to justify the time you put into it. It makes it prohibitively expensive.”
Lucian Pera of Adams and Reese in Memphis, Tennessee, is a nationally-respected leader in the field of legal ethics and professional responsibility. He said that he doubts the app would have much financial impact on attorneys, due to the small amounts being litigated, but suggested more attorneys might take issue with the app if it failed to do what it purports to do.
“What offends lawyers is what if they screw it up?” Pera said. “They think, ‘I can do a better job for that person.’ That’s nice, but is your service worth that in a $300 dispute over a lawnmower? Or is it better in a broad social sense, and personally, for them to do it themselves? To get a form to get them most of the way there, or at least gets them in front of a judge?”
As long as the service gives accurate information and advice to pro se litigants, Pera said he sees no problem with the app. But if it doesn’t, he said that’s a very different matter.
Speaking hypothetically, Pera said were the app to give out bad advice, it’s not yet clear what the recourse would be.
The app does offer a disclaimer which says it is not a law firm, but a “platform for legal information and self-help” provided for “private use.” Furthermore, it says that the app does not review information for accuracy, draw legal conclusions or provide opinions about the user’s selection of forms. Users agree to indemnify the app’s makers, when signing up for the service, from claims “arising out of negligent acts or omissions” of users.
Pera said that DoNotPay’s role as a “platform for legal information and self-help” puts it in a strange regulatory gray area.
“One problem is it’s hard to define what this is,” he said. “They’re not law firms, and they’re not regulated. They’re part of this whole realm of non-regulated legal service providers.”
Ultimately, Pera said the technology is too new, and not enough attempts at litigating these issues have occurred, to yet know what legal remedy would work.
“The fact we haven’t heard of problems doesn’t mean we haven’t had any,” he said.
But while the service doesn’t claim to provide legal representation, it’s also unclear whether or not it practically does that.
In South Carolina, In re Duncan established that the practice of law includes “the preparation of legal instruments of all kinds, and in general all advice to clients and all action taken for them in matters connected with the law.” In South Carolina v. Despain, the South Carolina Supreme Court found that a businesswoman’s use of a computer program to generate legal documents for others to be filed in family court amounted to the unauthorized practice of law.
Pera said that while practically such a charge against the program’s creators may seem ridiculous, legally, there may be precedent.
“Is it technically [unauthorized practice of law]? It might be,” he said, while conversely arguing that creating the app and making it publicly available is the equivalent of speech and therefore seems to be protected under the First Amendment. “This is the interactive equivalent of publishing a website … if you published a website like that, it’s hard to understand how that wouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment.”
Pera concluded that the net positives of the product and its step towards greater access to justice seem to outweigh the risks.
“Imagine a world 10 years from now where an attorney’s reaction is, you can come to our office or go to the app. If people could use the app and that worked, who would think that’s a bad idea?” he said. “Some would say, ‘No, they need a lawyer.’ But if they could get it to work, boy, that would be great.”
Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney