New Bill Proposed to Increase Access to Federal Court Records

Image result for legislation billTheoretically, certain documents are supposed to be freely accessible to the public, including documents contained in the dockets of the federal courts. Congress has permitted the imposition of fees for electronic access to this otherwise freely available documents, imposing a per page fee that, while not particularly excessive, can certainly add up. That access is accomplished through PACER – Public Access to Court Electronic Records. 

The fees, their use, and any “profit” realized via the system, have been the subject of public debate and litigation. Suits include class actions and are premised on overcharges, proper application of collected fees and failure to abide by certain laws, such as the E-Government Act of 2002. While private companies, such as Thompson Reuters and LexisNexis offer paid access with extra bells and whistles, the debate fundamentally centers on what constitutes public “access” to public documents in this day and age.

Recently, in early September, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced a bill to increase transparency and access to these federal court documents. H.R. 6714, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, seeks to open up PACER to users for free. It requires documents to be added within five days after filed with the court, in a text-searchable and machine-readable format. It also mandates updates to the woefully cludgy system and interface, including improvements to the search function. The bill also seeks to consolidate the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. While this system was intended to improve efficiency within the judicial system, it is broken into different systems in different courts, which further obstructs locating records and documents. The Act would unify these disconnected systems under the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Finally, the Act will permit fees to be charged to States that wish to opt into the CS/ECF system.

Who knows if this Bill will pass and the moneymaker that is PACER forever opened up to the masses through free access. It will be interesting to see how this Bill fares and, if it does pass, what it ultimately will look like. You can take a look at the current version of the bill text here.



Gauging Alertness – There’s an App for That

Capture.PNGSome of my best work is done when I am alert. No, really – early mornings are my most productive time, when I am fresh from a full night’s sleep. No doubt, the large cup of coffee helps. But when I am alert, I can plow through tasks, no matter how mundane, and feel fully engaged with the project.

But then, afternoon hits. About 2:00 pm, I start to feel my attention wander and my productivity decline. Sure, I could grab some sugar or caffeine, but those measures bring along with them some undesirable side effects.

What if I could be “alerted” to this gradual decline in focus, so that I could identify my patterns (other than recognizing that 2:00 is a tough time for me) and proactively schedule my work in ways that maximize my focus and efficiencies? Traditional alertness devices and measuring methods are fairly cumbersome, obtrusive and time-consuming – what if I could employ tracking in a way that is unobtrusive and passive and part of my regular regime?

Vincent W.-S. Tseng, Saeed Abdullah, Jean Costa, Tanzeem Choudhury, researchers at Cornell University, think they may have found a “healthier” answer to this potential problem. A smartphone app, appropriately named “AlertnessScanner”, Android only, can measure your alertness by taking photographic bursts using the front facing camera of your pupils when you look at your smartphone. In this manner, alertness can be measured continuously and in a way that does not meaningfully interfere with your regularly scheduled activities.

Why look at the eyes? The Cornell researchers note that the pupils of alert people are more dilated to increase information intake, compliments of the sympathetic nervous system. Conversely, when people are drowsy, the parasympathetic nervous system causes pupils to contract. The app, developed for research purposes only at this point, measures pupil dilation through its imaging and analysis tools. Images are taken upon sleep/unlock or at a user’s prompting. The app analysis employs a “pupil to iris” ratio in order to account for different focal distance each time a person looks at their phone. The app also allows the user to view the images and confirm the image is of sufficient quality before saving. The app also offers a “sleep journal” to record passive data on duration of the previous night’s sleep.

When you can track your alertness on the go, you can implement breaks or schedule work according to difficulty or focus-needs. I can see this being really important for some jobs – surgeons and heavy machine operators come to mind. But even lawyers can benefit from knowing when to schedule the drafting of a Supreme Court brief and when to schedule reviewing the news alerts.

While the results of the study look promising, the app is not yet in development. The researchers did identify some potential shortcomings, such as issues with controlling ambient light and the necessary resolution for the front facing camera to record usable results. However, early experimentation looks promising. The idea of better body analytics is a popular one right now – perhaps the next iteration of the Apple Watch can incorporate pupil dilation along with other metrics to zap you when you need it most.


Swapping Bots for Lawyers Via App: DoNotPay

DoNotPay.PNGI know it has been a fearfully long while since I last posted here. I forgive anyone and everyone from abandoning the empty, echoing halls of AdvocatesStudio for greener and more fertile and more updated tech blog pastures. Yet, here I am, writing again, prompted by the thought that suing someone may be as simple as downloading an app. DoNotPay, a robot lawyer Chatbot app, is now promising to help people file suits in small claims court, no JD required. And, because I like the cheap and free around here, DoNotPay currently is free for users. That is a lot cheaper than the hourly rate charged by the average lawyer.

Developer Josh Browder, now barely drinking age here in the US, created DoNotPay as a means of automating the process of challenging parking tickets, mainly inspired by his own excessive collection of tickets generated shortly after receiving his drivers’ license. The ChatBot – a conversational interface that prompts a user to provide information that can then be leveraged by the AI to provide answers or actions – allowed users to select one of several defenses to the ticket, enter details and send an appeal generated by the app to the appropriate legal authority. Browder taught himself to code at the age of 12, and his efforts certainly haven’t been wasted – the first version of the bot in 2015 reportedly saved UK drivers approximately 2 million pounds in two months time. Buoyed by his early success, Browder has allegedly claimed his app may “take down” the legal profession, which undoubtedly will be applauded by a couple of people.

Following on the parking ticket win, Josh added new beta functionality to the app in 2017 on the heels of the massive Equifax data breach –  he apparently also was swept up into the breach (notice a trend here?). DoNotPay offered the ability to sue Equifax in small claims courts throughout the U.S. up to the small claims jurisdictional limit, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000. The new functionality basically assisted the user in preparing the forms necessary for the small claims action; you still had to serve the Complaint and attend the hearing. After entering your name and address in the app, the app generated the necessary papers to institute a small claims action in a PDF format that could be printed and filed. Providing any assistance in the process, though, is a benefit to users unfamiliar with local small claims practice who might otherwise not bother to navigate the legal maze.  And, as found with the parking tickets, users reported some success using the app to secure awards from Equifax.

Within the past week, Browder has again tweaked the app, now permitting users to create documents to sue anyone in small claims court. And, the Bot is now available via mobile application – previously, the tool was strictly web based. An Android app is coming, Browder promises. There are additional new features, and this might be where Browder monetizes – users can find deals on fast food by filling out surveys and deals on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, make appointments at the California Department of Motor Vehicles and check on class action settlement eligibility. The app also can be used to help fight bank fees and dispute transactions, secure refunds from companies like Uber, and fix credit reports. Like the beta version, the bot asks for a name and address, claim size (to see if it is within the jurisdictional limit of the applicable state), and then generates a demand letter, creates the filing documents, offers information on how to serve the suit, and even generates suggested scripts and questions that users can leverage at the hearing.

The new app doesn’t stop there – DoNotPay also recently acquired Visabot to assist in the application of green cards and other visa filings. While Visabot was a pay app for some of its services, Browder is offering the former services, like all DoNotPay services, for free.

DoNotPay Screenshots.PNG

Does DoNotPay violate state laws on the unauthorized practice of law? Good question and one that is not yet resolved. If the information DoNotPay provides is targeted information that is freely accessible in the public forum, albeit in in a guided interface that helps users cut through the swathes of irrelevant, confusing or downright unhelpful information, perhaps that is not the same as providing legal advice. However, as I haven’t used the app myself yet, I cannot comment on whether any of the tools cross the line. I also cannot comment on the accuracy of the information provided by the app. Browder certainly maintains that he has been addressing concerns and making updates to improve information and to ensure compliance with applicable laws.

Browder also maintains that the information users provide to the app is protected –  per DoNotPay’s privacy policy, user data is protected with 256-bit encryption and there is no purported access to PII or case information.

Some may cynically claim that apps like this make an already litigious system worse. However, the fact remains that those who are most likely to use such an app are likely the more under-served segments of legal services in our society. Perhaps opening those doors a little wider may encourage some positive behaviors on the part of institutions that have benefited from that lack of access. Particularly in the area of immigration these days, such assistance, in any form, may be vital and life altering.

It is not clear how long the app will remain free. For now, Browder is seed funded with $1.1 million from investors and micro donations from customers. Browder’s stated intentions is that basic legal services will remain free, but inevitably, he may need to add charges for some services in order to keep the app going.

You can download the app yourself on the App Store – feel free to report back on your experience. Would love to know how our new Robot overlords handle the complexities of small claims court.