By Stephen J. Pedroza
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines — Legal terms could get highly technical and complicated. But a chatbot has been designed to converse with you via Facebook Messenger to break these legal processes down into simple, easily digestible language.
Initiated by a fourth-year Law student of Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan, Albert Wences C. Daba III, the first-level artificial intelligence chatbot called “Bots Legis” guides users through a textual dialog system requiring their “categorical” responses on a specific legal topic.
“For example, in Small Claims procedure, it asks the question of ‘how much is your total money claim?’ The user will then select between ‘above Php200,000’ or ‘Php200,000 and below.’ It’s a basic categorical fact that can be determined by the user and the bot gives the information appropriate to that response, Daba illustrated.
The bot’s responses were prepared in consultation with legal professionals. So far, Daba has personally consulted with MTC Judge Jerlie Requerme, MTC clerk of court Margie Maagad, lawyer Ernesto Neri, and Labor Commissioner Proculo Sarmen on different subjects and the accuracy of the information.
With the Bots Legis being available to chat with on Facebook Messenger, Daba sees this as an opportunity to make it accessible to the estimated user base of around 40 million Filipinos on the said social-networking site.
“Its significance is that it can greatly increase the reach of legal information in a time when there is a substantial number of people whose only reliable sources of legal information are the pro bono lawyers or legal clinics,” Daba said.
However, he made it clear that the bot is not meant to replace actual lawyers. “It just fills in some areas that were supposedly designed by law to be resolved without the intervention of lawyers,” he added.
“Small Claims procedure, for instance, even disallows lawyers to appear in its proceedings (unless the lawyer himself is a party) but the small claims pamphlet is, in my assessment, couched in technical language and requires knowledge of other laws (such as the Katarungang Pambarangay Law and laws on prescription) to fully comprehend. So, people might end up either asking their friends (lawyer or not), to google their question, or worse, they will just give up on a legal resolution to their problem,” Daba explained.
“With their responses, the bot will then be able to provide them with the information appropriate to their situation such as where to file the claim, how much to pay in legal fees, links to the forms, and it even makes sure that the claim is still valid (not prescribed),” he continued.
The bot’s information is applicable to all municipal trial courts across the Philippines, except for the estimated court fee figures, which may only be applicable in Cagayan de Oro City.
Legal info solutions at your fingertips
A chatbot is a conversation software done via auditory or textual methods, typically used in dialog systems for various purposes, including customer service, polls or information acquisition. Simple AI chatterbots use scanning systems for keywords within the input, then pull a reply with the most matching keywords, or the most similar wording pattern, from a database.
Besides English, the responses of Daba’s bot are also available in Cebuano or Binisaya.
“Bots Legis is a service that should be free for use by the Filipino public in perpetuity. Thus, at no point in time should it ever have paywalls,” Daba answered when asked about the future of this promising project.
“I understand that sustainability includes resolving the question of financial resources. As of now, the only expenses related to the bot are the trips to the consultants and [the cost of] internet access. However, including more complex legal processes needs more volunteers. The user base is also not yet enough to get anyone interested in paid advertisements. So right now, sustainability rests on the willingness of volunteers to take part in this project,” he continued.
Daba hopes that legal groups and professionals will consider volunteering for or contributing to this initiative.
“My goal this semester is to add features pertaining to labor law and finish the Cebuano version of the Small Claims. The former is a herculean task as labor law has interconnecting procedures and this would require a lot of research to ensure the accuracy and intuitiveness of the bot. However, once completed, I’m sure it could help a lot of people,” he said.
What started out as a personal summer project, Daba has turned this chatbot into an ally of the common man.
“I learned C++ last semester en route to completing a vending machine project during the summer break. However, I had a problem getting the parts from China that made it impossible for me to get the parts on time for a build over the break. So, I was left with a working knowledge of the C++ programming language and nothing to do until classes start,” he recounted.
One day while browsing through his Facebook feed, he found an article about a Stanford student who made a chatbot that appealed parking tickets. Eventually, he saw the technology can do more than just assisting parking ticket appeals so he focused his bot on Small Claims procedure, which is a legal process applicable to money claims Php200,000.00 and below.
“I don’t see why this technology can’t be used for Philippine legal processes. I made the prototype just last month in consultation with some legal professionals and now I’m proud to say that it is fully operational. Bots Legis can do so much with more people pitching in.”