Fighting the justice gap with artificial intelligence

Students using AI to help solve legal challenges

Getting useful legal information from court and other government websites is a challenge, especially for people who are not lawyers. The sites try to match users with the right resources, but individuals often don’t know exactly what to search for. Complicating matters further, laypeople and legal experts use different language, making it hard to match a user’s question with a court official’s or lawyer’s expertise.

As the director of the Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab at Suffolk Law, David Colarusso is working to change this, thanks to funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Along with his LIT Lab students, Colarusso is developing a machine-based algorithm that understands legal queries couched in lay terms, improving access to justice.

Known as Spot, the software will be made publicly available via an application programming interface, or API. It builds on work from 2018, when the Pew Charitable Trusts funded the development of an online game, Learned Hands, created by the LIT Lab and its partners at Stanford Law School’s Legal Design Lab. Lawyers, students, and other gamers playing Learned Hands identify and label legal questions posed by laypeople. Each time they play, they’re training a machine to spot and sort legal issues.

Jessica Promes JD’19; LIT Lab Director David Colarusso; Chantal Choi JD’19; Nicole Siino JD’18; and Dean Andrew Perlman
Jessica Promes JD’19; LIT Lab Director David Colarusso; Chantal Choi JD’19; Nicole Siino JD’18; and Dean Andrew Perlman

With this new grant to develop the Spot tool, someone could type a plain-English search query such as: “My apartment is so moldy I can’t stay there anymore. Is there anything I can do?” The search results would reveal that the query is highly likely to be related to a housing issue or, more specifically, to the legal term “constructive eviction.”

“You know you have a housing problem. But very few people think about their housing problems in terms of something like constructive eviction,” explains Colarusso. “The idea is to have the tool be able to spot those issues based upon people’s own language.”

Colarusso and his students envision Spot being used by courts, legal offices, and nonprofits to direct people to the most appropriate resources—and in some cases even to software, similar to TurboTax, that would walk users through filling out and submitting legal documents. This fall, the LIT Lab was recognized for its game-changing approach with a top honor, the InnovAction Award, from the College of Law Practice Management.

The Lab’s API will be available at no charge to those working on access-to-justice issues, says Colarusso.

Erika Rickard, senior official of Civil Legal System Modernization at Pew Charitable Trusts, says the civil legal system is increasingly navigated by people who don’t have legal help. Pew has set a goal to modernize the courts’ relationship with users and make the legal system more effective and accessible to all, especially low- to moderate income populations.

“For those people, identifying and understanding their legal issues are the first steps in tackling the problem,” she says. “By incorporating Spot, legal information portals can better help these populations successfully navigate the nation’s civil courts.”

Gaining Global Attention

The LIT Lab’s Learned Hands crowdsourcing tool, cocreated with the Legal Design Lab at Stanford, was shortlisted among 30 of the most innovative access-tojustice projects in the world by the World Justice Project (WJP). The LIT Lab earned an invitation to The Hague for the WJP’s World Justice Forum.