Can This New Chatbot Solve Refugee Legal Issues?

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 16, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A new chatbot, a computer programmed to mimic conversation with users, is hoping to help refugees by providing free legal assistance. No, the chatbot is not a walking, talking, humanoid-type lawyer-robot, it is simply a program that runs through Facebook Messenger.

The chatbot's creator, who's still too young to legally drink in the United States, saw significant success with the initial rollout of his chatbot, named Donotpay, which has provided free legal help to users in London and New York City to fight their parking tickets. Surprisingly, the chatbot's record of winning parking tickets is 64 percent -- a whopping 160,000 out of 250,000 cases were won! Riding the tide of that success, the young creator spent the last six months working on building immigration law help for refugees seeking asylum into the chatbot.

The chatbot provides legal assistance in a limited capacity by asking users to answer a series of questions. In the parking ticket context, it requests information about and surrounding the ticket, then creates a form letter contesting the ticket using the information provided. The user still has to send the letter in and follow through.

For refugees seeking immigration assistance, the chatbot will work similarly to the parking ticket program, but instead will gather specific information relevant to refugee asylum, then provide information about what a refugee needs to do to seek asylum. Generally, it will involve filling out forms, but knowing which forms to fill out and how to fill them out is often confusing. Unfortunately, at this time, this chatbot is only available in English. You can access it through Facebook Messenger by searching for Donotpay in the smart phone or web application.

Donotpay Is Not a Lawyer

The Donotpay chatbot, while helpful, is not an actual lawyer. What that means is that it cannot check your work, and cannot represent you in court, official proceedings, or in any capacity what-so-ever. For refugees seeking legal help, the chatbot may be able to help some, but unlike a traffic ticket where the worst case scenario is a fine, immigration law has much more significant consequences, including deportation. Immigration law is complex and nuanced, and having an actual, live and experienced immigration attorney by your side, actually helping, is rarely a bad idea.

While private immigration lawyers are not free, there are nonprofits that provide live legal assistance and sometimes full representation as well. Some attorneys have sliding scale fees, where they accept a lower fee if you can show financial need, or offer no interest payment plans. Small firms are often more flexible on fees, and clients seeking sliding scale discounts, or payments plans, should not be shy about stating that need upfront.

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