The legal information chatbot project
16 Apr 2020
Legal Access Challenge winners, Mencap and Access Social Care, tell us more about their legal chatbot solution, which delivers free, accessible legal advice.
Most of us will need social care at some time in our lives. Social care is support provided to children and adults with needs associated with old age, disability, ill health or other vulnerabilities. It is hard to define because it can range from deeply intimate personal care; to practical support with daily tasks such as support to manage a budget or to shop; or supporting a person to see family and friends in the community.
Despite an increase in demand caused by an aging population, austerity means 25% less people receive social care than 5 years ago, 95% of local authority social care leaders have admitted that they are unlikely to meet all their legal duties to provide care in 2020. Our legal team has a 98% full or partial success rate with our cases, and yet we struggle to find legal aid lawyers to take the cases on. Community care law “advice deserts” and cuts to charitable advice provision mean that hundreds of thousands of people with social care needs are experiencing challenges with finding out about their rights and accessing justice. Helplines, like the Mencap helpline, are overwhelmed. Many advice seekers are digitally able, but information resources online are dense with text and hard to navigate, even for the most able.
In these uncertain times, and with all of the challenges that will no doubt fall in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, now more than ever, we need to understand what social care means to all of us, how we preserve it and how we can all access it should we need to.
Our vision was to develop a legal information chatbot to provide free, accessible legal information and support 24/7 to help people (including vulnerable customers) to know their rights and challenge unlawful decisions. We wanted to develop a chatbot to be hosted on the websites of other advice providing organisations (including helpline charities and law centres) to create a “go to” advice portal to help the social justice sector to triage cases in a cost effective way so that lawyers and advisors can focus on the most complex cases.
The Project Partners
The chatbot sits within a wider legal network project which aims to connect our legal expertise to other social care organisations. The legal network project was incubated within Mencap but has now spun off to be run by an independent charity, Access Social Care. Access Social Care and Mencap are working with IBM who have offered their time pro bono to support the development of the chatbot. Public legal education experts Law for Life have helped us with the curation of content on the chatbot and Learning Disability England have provided consultancy on creating accessible content. With funding from the Legal Education Foundation, we sought an independent review of our chatbot from chatbot experts, Springbok AI. We have had excellent support from Liverpool and Southbank Universities to test the product.
As Legal Access Challenge finalists we have benefited from timely advice and support from the SRA, the Information commissioner and from Hogan Lovells on key elements of the project.
Our voice and text enabled chatbot can be accessed via a desktop or a mobile device. It helps people to get the information they need on social care and welfare benefits. Users no longer have to search through vast amounts of fact-sheet text to get their answer, instead they type their question into the chatbot, and it guides them to relevant advice including template letters. The chatbot includes easy read content for people with intellectual disabilities, and is designed to triage cases by identifying when a person is asking a complex question or is in a safeguarding situation which requires the input of a real person- at this point the chatbot user is invited to call a legal advisor.
Our chatbot is already being used by advisors on Mencap’s helpline, showing that advisors without subject matter expertise can use the chatbot to answer questions that they could not previously have answered. The next step will be to carry out a soft launch with frontline care managers from our legal network to test the chatbot by asking live questions about the legal rights of the people that they support. This safe testing environment monitored by our legal caseworkers will enable us to capture and tag more real-life questions to improve the accuracy of the chatbot ready for a public website launch. Academic partners at Southbank and Liverpool Universities will also continue to support testing.
We are absolutely delighted to have won the Legal Access Challenge. It feels very apt that in a time where more than ever we rely on technology to go about our business, that we should win a prize that will ultimately support those most vulnerable among us through the use of artificial intelligence.
We will use the prize money to recruit an in-house developer to work alongside our subject matter experts to continue to improve operational functionality. We will also develop licensing arrangements to enable the chatbot to work across the Mencap and Access Social Care websites – demonstrating this capability to other potential host organisations. We aim to have a minimum viable product that works across several public websites within the next 12 months. In the short term we are seeking additional grant funding but the plan for the medium term is to transition to a license fee model. Organisations hosting The Chatbot on their website will pay a license fee and a nominal cost per use of the chatbot. We will thereby spread the cost of development and maintenance across the social care and access to justice sectors. The Chatbot will always be free at the point of use for individual advice seekers.
In time we hope to become a centre of excellence for the charity sector, using our chatbot model to assist other organisations to develop chatbots in other subject matter areas in an affordable way.