Future Tense

This Lawyer Bot Will Be Happy to Solve Your Housing Problems

Wayne, a homeless man in London, asks passersby for change. DoNotPay will now help homeless people apply for emergency housing in the U.K.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Remember the DoNotPay bot? The world’s first “robot lawyer” (that we know of, I have questions about some of the attorneys I’ve met) made a name for itself disputing hundreds and thousands of parking tickets in London and New York City. Creator Joshua Browder, a Stanford student born in the United Kingdom, told Venture Beat that his bot had successfully challenged 160,000 of 250,000 British parking tickets as of June. (DoNotPay opened its “practice” across the pond last fall and came to the states in March.) “I think the people getting parking tickets are the most vulnerable in society,” Browder said at the time. “These people aren’t looking to break the law. I think they’re being exploited as a revenue source by the local government.”

DoNotPay is essentially a chat bot that asks the user questions to determine what the best course of legal action might be. For instance, it might inquire, of the newly ticketed, whether a sign was visible above the parking space. Or maybe the only nearby lot was too small—it’s unreasonable to ticket drivers for not parking in a too-small lot. Once the user has figured out the basis for his appeal, DoNotPay generates an official letter automatically.

That was several months ago. Now, the bot is turning its pro bono efforts to homelessness. The new service launched Aug. 10 in the United Kingdom; Browder wants to take it to San Francisco and New York next. It’s a story of unanticipated demand: When DoNotPay began receiving messages about eviction and re-possession, Browder realized his digital Saul Goodman could help people apply for emergency housing. According to the Guardian, he consulted a team of volunteer (human) lawyers and pored over FOIA-obtained documents to “figure out trends in why public housing applications are approved or denied.”

That data made its way into the algorithm that shapes DoNotPay’s responses to user input. Though the project was only released on Wednesday, Browder told the Guardian he’s already seeing people use it to help tackle their housing problems. For instance, to a person evicted from her home, the bot might ask: “Do you have a legal right to live here?” It might say, “Are you legally homeless?” and elaborate with a definition: “Usually, this means that you have no legal right to live in accommodation anywhere in the world.”

The more complicated and delicate cases will likely continue to require a human touch, but DoNotPay may reduce the shame and bother that can come with seeking certain forms of legal aid. With his automated attorney, Browder has bottled the efficiency of statutory expertise, made it convenient to access, and left out the sticky interpersonal stuff. Who—law school grad or otherwise—would object to that?