In brief: Bad news for those excited to see an AI-powered ‘robot lawyer’ advising defendants inside a courtroom: DoNotPay will not be using its artificial intelligence to argue a legal case in a court of law next month after the startup’s CEO was threatened with jail.

News that an AI would represent a defendant fighting a speeding ticket in court on February 22 arrived earlier this month. It would have involved an iPhone equipped with an AI app being placed in the defendant’s pocket. Combined with an earpiece and smart glasses, the defendant would have been able to record court proceedings while the AI provided arguments that would hopefully win the case.

The system relies on AI text generators, including ChatGPT and DaVinci, writes NPR. DoNotPay already uses AI-generated form letters and chatbots to dispute parking tickets, lower bills, and other grievances.

The idea brought plenty of interest and wasn’t without controversy. It would have been the first time someone was defended in court by an AI, and would have marked another step in artificial intelligence’s advancement.

Joshua Browder, DoNotPay’s CEO, said that multiple state bar associations threatened the company over its plans, with prosecution and prison time put forward as possible consequences of using the so-called robot lawyer. One state bar official noted that the unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor in some states, punishable by up to six months in county jail.

“Even if it wouldn’t happen, the threat of criminal charges was enough to give it up,” he told NPR. “The letters have become so frequent that we thought it was just a distraction and that we should move on.”

The State Bar of California would not comment on the DoNotPay case specifically, but it did say it has a duty to investigate possible instances of unauthorized practice of law. It added that there had been a recent surge in poor-quality legal representation that has emerged to fill a void in affordable legal advice.

“They were threatening to charge us with unauthorized practice of law,” Browder confirmed. He could have also faced other charges, including interfering with judicial practice.

Browder said that the potential consequences of using a robot lawyer have become a distraction for the company, and it is now focusing on its “bread and butter” of consumer rights. The CEO says DoNotPay has won more than 2 million customer service disputes and court cases on behalf of individuals against institutions and organizations. It also wants to assist people dealing with expensive medical bills, unwanted subscriptions, and issues with credit reporting agencies. Browder also said that the AI lawyer was supposed to help those who can’t afford their own representatives in court.

Not everyone is happy with DoNotPay’s bread-and-butter service. Kathryn Tewson tweeted that it is a “straight-up plug-and-chug document wizard.”

Masthead: Francesco Tommasini


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