Robots Are Taking Divorce Lawyers’ Jobs, Too

Online tools that are cheaper than lawyers improve access to justice.

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Photo illustration: 731; Photographer: Getty Images; Akio Kon/Bloomberg (4)

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.

As with the systems being introduced in England and Canada, use of Rechtwijzer is voluntary—and empowering, says Verdonschot. “When people hand over an entire divorce or separation case to a lawyer, it doesn’t always feel OK,” he says. Verdonschot, working with Modria founder Rule, helped British nonprofit Relate build a similar platform that will be launched this year in England and Wales. Modria’s technology also powers MyLawBC, a divorce-negotiation platform run by British Columbia’s legal services bureau that’s separate from the province’s small-claims online tribunal.

The U.S. trails Europe and Canada in developing self-help tools for disputes, though some state and local jurisdictions use online platforms for property-tax appeals and no-fault insurance claims. Entrepreneurs have started web-based dispute-resolution sites with names such as ClaimSettle and EQuibbly, but most have shut down after failing to attract business, says Robert Ambrogi, a Massachusetts attorney who writes about online dispute resolution. Some startups were hurt by a lack of public awareness, while others suffered from clunky user interfaces. Still others had planned to recruit lawyers and retired judges to negotiate settlements, but few were interested, Ambrogi says. Most U.S. lawyers “feel uncomfortable about the process.”

Dutch lawyers initially were wary of the Rechtwijzer system and feared a loss of billable hours, Verdonschot says. But now, many view the online platform as an efficient way to process simpler cases, while more complicated matters still require their expertise. “It doesn’t diminish the market for legal professionals,” he says, “it just reshuffles it.”

The bottom line: Dispute-resolution tools similar to those used by online merchants are gaining wider acceptance in many countries—but not in the U.S.

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