Would you trust a chat bot powered by artificial intelligence to help draft your last will and testament?
In the Northern Territory town of Coolalinga, it’s already happening.
For $150, a chat bot called Ailira will help you make a will — and since the service began in November last year, hundreds of people have used it.
But don’t be confused, this is not a robot lawyer in action.
According to Ailira’s creator, South Australian taxation lawyer Adrian Cartland, it’s more akin to the do-it-yourself paper will kits stocked at your local newsagency, and it falls under the heading of what’s known in the law world as “legal stationery”.
But some legal experts have concerns about whether clients really understand what they’re paying for.
All the office trimmings, but no lawyers
The service Mr Cartland’s company offers is billed as “a law firm without lawyers”.
But its Coolalinga office looks very much like a traditional, small-town law firm.
“There’s a receptionist at the front and there’s an office that would probably look familiar to most people who have seen legal offices, bookshelves on the back,” Mr Cartland said.
“Then, when you sit in front of the desk though, instead of the lawyer … there is a computer screen.”
Customers use the screen to communicate with Ailira.
“And so you chat with her, you type in answers … Ailira will ask them some questions. And then if they get stuck, you can ask questions back,” Mr Cartland said.
“Then Ailira can help them put together a will, or … refer them off to a lawyer if they have something that is complex.”
According to Mr Cartland, using a chat bot to make a will is a better option than a will kit, because help is at hand for clients with queries.
“With most legal will kits, people will come to a really simple question, for example, ‘can my son be the executor?’ And then they get stuck there … you’ve got no-one to ask,” he said.
For people “with a complex state of affairs”, Mr Cartland acknowledged Ailira just won’t be suitable.
He said Ailira is most helpful for people with uncomplicated financial affairs. The ideal client is someone — or perhaps a couple — with kids, a house, a car, and a modest estate.
“They are not cutting out any of their children, [so] there is a low risk of dispute there,” Mr Cartland said.
As an added safety guard, Mr Cartland said, staff at the office in Coolalinga are on hand to pick up on issues relating to lack of capacity in the person writing the will (for example, due to mental illness or dementia) or concerns about others who might be unduly influencing them.
In those instances, he said, staff will refer the matter off to either a law firm in the Northern Territory or Mr Cartland’s law firm in Adelaide.
But this approach is not without critics.
Ursula Stanisich, a Victorian barrister specialising in wills and estates, has concerns about whether receptionists really will be able to assess if a client has enough capacity to make their wishes known via a chat bot program.
“It’s a bit hard to tell without really knowing what they do,” she said.
“The whole process takes about 15 to 20 minutes, which is pretty fast and it’s probably hard to pick up those types of issues in such a short time. But, it certainly provides some level of safety for the person making the will.”
Who’s responsible if things go wrong?
When a person gets a will drafted by a lawyer, if the lawyer gets it wrong there are consequences and potentially, the lawyer is liable for the costs.
So, if legal problems occur because of a chat bot will, who is ultimately held responsible and liable?
According to Mr Cartland, the service provided by Ailira falls under the same category as paper will kit — ie. legal stationery — and so this means the client is liable.
“The liability is with yourself … that’s the key to being able to reduce prices from hundreds of dollars for drawing a lawyer will, to a reduced price in the law firm without lawyers [using Ailira’s services],” he said.
It has been put to The Law Report that the NT Law Society, which regulates legal services in that territory, actually considered Mr Cartland’s business to constitute legal advice, and so required his business to take out professional indemnity insurance.
The president of the NT Law Society, Maria Savvas, confirmed the society had been in discussions with that Cartland Law’s ‘bot will’ service. However, she declined to be drawn on the specific regulatory requirements the service had been required to adhere to, or on whether the society believed the chat bot will service constituted legal advice or legal stationery.
“The society is unable to provide specific comments or details about any regulatory information, investigations or actions the society is taking or has taken against a particular law firm,” she said in a statement.
“All law firms in the NT are required to hold professional indemnity insurance (PII) … unless they are granted an exemption, which would usually only be given if the law firm in the NT is covered by an approved PII scheme interstate.”
In Ms Stanisich’s opinion, seeing a real, human lawyer is still the better option.
“$150 [for a chat bot will] could be a lot cheaper than if you get it done by a lawyer,” she said.
“But the problem that I see is that people don’t understand the difference in what they are getting … you are not getting really any of those safeguards that you get with a lawyer.
“Sometimes, a lawyer might have to speak to a client more than once so that they can really understand their wishes.
“There are lots of steps that they can take to ensure that someone can properly make their will in a way that can be upheld.”
However, Mr Cartland says Ailira provides an important service.
“What we do provides the potential for a huge access to justice … [it’s] some law for people who otherwise have zero,” he said.
Plans for ‘bot will’ expansion
Following the success of the service in the NT, Mr Cartland says he plans to expand Ailira’s services to the eastern seaboard states.
In NSW, Legal Services Commissioner John McKenzie has questions about whether the service can be categorised as legal stationary.
“Where legal information, or stationary, ends and legal advice begins has to be judged on the facts of any particular interchange, whether that be online or in person … Lawyers cannot abrogate that professional responsibility and non-lawyers are not permitted by law to provide legal advice. As the pace of digital technology development continues to quicken, regulators will need to view whatever delivery vehicles emerge,” he said.
The Victorian Legal Service Board told The Law Report it is watching the space closely. In a statement, the board’s chief executive officer, Fiona McLeay, said:
“If a lawyer-less law practice sought to operate in Victoria, the Victorian Legal Service board would need to look closely at the proposed services and would also be guided by the experiences of our interstate colleagues. Not the least of our concerns would be the protection of consumers; what exactly the consumer thinks they’re getting by using such a service would be an important consideration.”