Software that can produce persuasive sentences from a straightforward prompt—is in full gear.

Few businesses are as terrified as the legal profession, which has spent years investing in software to create and process legal documents. After all, you may quip, what are attorneys if not primitive human chatbots that produce compelling sentences in response to straightforward instructions?

This joke is soon to become far less humorous for the state and local courts in America. Debt collection companies have already flooded courts with thousands of low-quality, low-value cases, ambushing regular individuals. In a world where anyone with a chatbot may become a high-volume filer or where common people might rely on chatbots for urgently required legal counsel, courts are badly unprepared.

Garnishments in, garbage out

When you image a court, you might envision two opposing attorneys debating in front of a judge and possibly a jury. The majority of that image is a trick. Americans only have the right to legal representation when they are charged with a crime; otherwise, you are on your own. As a result, at least one side in the great majority of civil disputes in state and local courts lacks legal representation, frequently because they have no other choice. Additionally, every case involving a self-represented litigant takes extra court resources because court procedures are set up for lawyers, presuming the self-represented litigant ever appears in court.

When a court has a backlog of cases like this, the outcomes are nasty. Following the 2008 financial crisis, a large number of foreclosure cases suddenly flooded the court dockets. Numerous instances had numerous flaws, including fake affidavits, improper notarizations, paperwork that was out of date, insufficient documentation, and more. Yet individuals lost their homes as a result of forced foreclosures.

This happened repeatedly. It serves as a warning about what can happen when courts remain inert in the face of change. Take today’s high-volume filers: debt collection agencies, to envision the future of robot attorneys. Local court dockets are increasingly dominated by small-dollar ($5,000 or less) debt cases that collections companies have filed in large numbers. The Pew Charitable Trusts discovered in 2013 that a quarter of all civil (non-criminal) cases filed in the United States involved small-dollar debts, despite the fact that national statistics is difficult to acquire (more on that later). It was slightly more than 10% in 1993. And both red and blue states are seeing an increase in cases.

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Simple wage garnishments are used to recover difficult-to-collect debt in debt collection cases. In the majority of states, a judge can direct an employer to pay a creditor instead of the debtor when a person loses a debt case. What is the simplest method for something to occur? Case default occurs when the defendant does not appear. Most debt cases end in default because the defendant either refuses to appear, is unsure of what to do or should do, or, more frequently, never learns that a case has even been filed.

A persistent issue in debt and eviction proceedings for decades has been “sewer service,” where plaintiffs consciously avoid informing defendants about a court action (for example, by sending a case to an outdated address). Sometimes people learn they are being sued after discovering their income has been deducted.

When a case does go into default, many courts will simply grant the plaintiff’s request for a judgment without examining whether the plaintiff has provided sufficient (or any) proof that the debt is theirs, that the defendant still owes the debt, or whether the defendant has received the proper notice of the case. Sometimes, even math is incorrect: According to a survey of Utah’s courts, 9.3% of debt cases included incorrect calculations for the interest plaintiffs were entitled to following a verdict. Or, put another way, garbage in, garnishes out.

Courts are designed with the expectation that defendants will appear, so when defendants default, courts simply do not have the time or resources to review every file, according to court defenders. But the ultimate effect is a poisonous mix of flawed cases, subpar service, and overburdened courts that is unquestionably profitable even as it erodes people’s confidence in the judicial system.

My Robot Lawyer Never Sleeps

If you dwell on this situation too long, practically every use of extensive language models in courts turns into a volume issue that courts are ill-equipped to handle.

Currently, ChatGPT can produce a mediocre eviction letter or debt collection demand, which may be sufficient to compel a default. If courts won’t check and defendants don’t appear, why should a plaintiff worry if a huge language model generates a bad filing?

From there, it is simple to understand how extensive language models might assist the powerful in wielding the legal system as a weapon. minor claims debt cases nowadays. Tomorrow, corporate landlords will use coercive and forceful eviction methods. The following day, state bounty legislation encouraged crowdsourced legal harassment of organizations that support women seeking abortions.

However, let’s consider the more positive situation in which common people who can’t find legal counsel instead turn to chatbots for assistance. People who cannot afford or access attorneys, who believe the legal system is not designed for them, who believe their problems are unsolvable, and who believe their rights are unattainable, frequent the courts every day in every state. Is it any surprise that they are willing to deploy “robot lawyers,” even if the outcomes contain errors or user data is not kept private? The truth is that people who need legal assistance will turn to services like ChatGPT because they have no other options.

Related: Robots From Toyota Research Institute Depart

Perhaps it works, and chatbots give individuals more confidence and empowerment to appear in court. Perhaps the correct instrument, used properly, can assist those without legal representation in navigating the court system’s formal requirements and avoiding its many potential pitfalls. It’s possible that filings for small claims or arbitration in big volumes will be used as a distributed version of class actions for community organizing. Large language models may also be successfully used to assist people in defending themselves against unfair legal proceedings.

The dirty little secret of those debt case defaults, though, is that even if all those maybes materialize: If every case were zealously defended, not only would more defendants prevail, but courts all over the world would become overburdened. Because they are unable to manage the alternative, courts are motivated to perpetuate a system that is unfair to defendants. The main threat posed by AI in the legal field isn’t that it will eliminate the need for lawyers; rather, it will overburden courts and force defendants without attorneys to foot the tab.

Catching Up to the Present

Future-proofing doesn’t necessitate exorbitant investments in cutting-edge technologies. Even small adjustments to the way courts work can have a significant effect.

Courts should include design friction in high-volume filing processes to prevent cases with defects. State and local courts frequently use simple PDFs, which puts the onus of detecting and fixing problems on the already overburdened court staff. On the other hand, almost every web form or API on the internet has basic validation checks in place; you can’t just submit a form that isn’t complete or full of mistakes. The most egregiously flawed and incomplete files could be stopped before they even reach a court docket by encouraging high-volume filers to submit cases as structured data rather than document dumps. This type of small tweak in a court rule or document design can mean the difference between someone having a fair hearing and unintentionally defaulting.

In general, embracing data can facilitate learning opportunities that courts have traditionally underinvested in: Courts could better understand parties’ legal needs, triage cases, and be more responsive to changes in filing trends; researchers could build a more complete picture of what legal interventions actually work, and where help is and isn’t effective. Sometimes it’s just a straightforward policy query: For instance, why do 46 states first permit income garnishments as a result of consumer debt?

It’s time to overhaul service, or the procedure for informing someone they have a legal case against them, as it’s been years overdue. Particularly in situations when the defendant is unlikely to have legal counsel, plaintiffs and process servers alike should be held more accountable for making sure and demonstrating that a defendant truly receives notice of a case. Courts should be able to confirm a defendant’s present address and demonstrate that process servers actually went to them if any data broker off the street can purchase and sell your address and location.

The rise of software-powered counsel must be understood as a call for systemic reform by courts, lawmakers, and the legal profession they regulate. Policymakers can help define the obligations that developers of legal assistance software owe their users, from assisting in minimizing errors and blunders to preserving information about someone’s search for assistance. If software will continue to be a source of legal advice and knowledge.

It’s always alluring to picture the fantastical futures that cutting-edge technology might enable. However, in the here and now, it’s the everyday issues that sap people’s spirits and undermine their belief in the possibility of a better future. Most people don’t need a constant stream of AI-generated legal threats, apps, wizards, and bots guiding them through unnecessarily difficult legal mazes in the future of law. It only needs to serve as a resource for solutions to the challenges that individuals face on a daily basis.


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