Will technology allow refugees to access free and instant legal advice?

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Can a simple website or phone app replace an entire profession? We have seen Uber taking over the taxi industryExpedia replacing travel agents, Linkedin doing the job of recruiters and software like Turbotax replacing even tax accountants. Are lawyers next?

Several digital tools have emerged in past years able to carry out certain tasks traditionally reserved to lawyers. ButProfessor Frank Levy, an economist at MIT who studies technology’s impact on jobs (particularly lawyers) argues that even “the most developed legal applications” can only carry out mechanical tasks such as “searching contracts for particular clauses or searching [a] case law for particular keywords and phrases.”

As technology replaces the work most lawyers don’t want to do because it’s too simple or dull, what about the work they deliberately avoid because it is not financially profitable? One example of this is providing legal assistance to those who cannot afford to pay such as the refugee community. While some well-intentioned lawyers have offered free advice to migrants in the Calais area in Francemost legal experts have been reticent to get involved due to the lack of business incentive: refugees just can’t afford lawyers.

Yet asylum seekers and refugees are in dire need of legal information and advice to understand their rights, access services, register marriages, divorces and birthsrent property or start a business.

“There is a total lack of understanding of asylum lawsparticularly because these change very quickly,” explains Noanne Tennesondirector of L’Alliance des Avocats pour les Droits de l’Homme(Alliance of Lawyers for Human Rights).

“Refugees are also confronted with recurring practical difficulties when trying to obtain benefits,like when they cannot open a bank account, do not have a fixed address or cannot afford to pay for legal procedures,” adds Tenneson.

Phone apps and online platforms could solve this problem

The long-standing website Findlaw already allows you to search the laws of a country by topic, and even breaks them down in user-friendly questions like “How do I apply for asylum?” or “What happens if my appeal fails?”.  

But in Professor Levy’s view, what is required is something much more sophisticated: “an expert system, based on the country’s immigration laws”. Such a system should enable the refugee to select a question from a menu and determine the refugee’s status through a series of questions in order to provide an answer to the initial question according to Levy. Such a tool would have its limits though. “Complex laws that classify refugees based on multiple details would lead to a system that is cumbersome to use, and prone to giving incorrect answers,” he adds.

The start-up Trellyz has taken another approach: allow aid organisations to upload general legal information on an app and connect refugees using the app to a lawyer if they need more advice. Trellyz’s RefAid app, launched in February of this year, is used in Italy, Greece, the UK and Belgium and will expand to several other countries in the next few weeks.

Aid organisations such as Doctors of the World and the Red Cross use the app to advertise their services and guide refugees to where they can obtain legal assistance. For the past three months, Ref Aid has been focusing on onboarding more than 100 NGOs which turn to the app for internal coordination within their organization as well as coordination with other organisations. These NGOs then start to share the app with their beneficiaries.

“Refugees can see pins on a map in the app showing services within 70 kilometres of where they are,” says Shelley Taylor, the founder and CEO of Trellyz. “All of the legal services are free, and many if not most of the aid organisations using the platform either offer access to lawyers directly or make referrals to them.”

Not only has Trellyz developed an app to help refugees access legal aid, the startup is also working on another product that would facilitate exchange among lawyers in Europe on migration-related issues.

It would be a platform for legal experts to do knowledge transfer and management between countries so that for example, Italian lawyers with deep knowledge of refugee law can share that knowledge with lawyers in other countries so that there can be more help available to refugees” says Taylor.  

“This is an exciting and ambitious project that will really contribute to the access that refugees have to the international legal community,” she adds.

It seems that in the wake of the difficulties faced by refugees in Europe, technology might be filling in the gaps that lawyers are unable to fill, while also encouraging the legal profession to engage with those who cannot afford to solicit their help through traditional channels.