Logging in Problems
A tenant in Boston refuses to pay his rent until his landlord rectifies the apartment's cockroach problem. But instead of getting his room fumigated, he receives an eviction notice.
For help, he turns to Harvard Law School's Boston Legal Services Institute where a student records the facts in the center's computer terminal. He then types in the word "recommendation" and instantly the computer responds with expert legal advice: "Withhold only 10 percent of the rent."
While purely hypothetical now this scenario could actually happen next September when the Law School starts up its newest computer program.
The $750,000 experiment--the first of its kind anywhere--will offer advice to the area's poor on a wide range of concerns. The Boston legal service institute, which employs 350 Law School students, was started in response to remarks by both Presdient Bok and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger about the failure of law schools to address the legal system's inequities.
"This is one practical way of giving aid to the poor and making it possible to allow good attorneys to spread their time more efficiently," says Donald T. Trautman, President of the Minneapolis-based Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction.
"It is a pilot program, aimed at assisting those who cannot afford lawyers, and it should also help students studying legal aid," Trautman adds.
In addition to tenant problems, the computer system can deal with other hassles. "There are lots of old folks who have problems with their Social Security checks and get embroiled in very complex legal cases. And they simply don't have the money to sponsor a law suit," says John Getsinger, project director of the school's information technology project, explaining that the program will be specifically designed to help handle these types of cases.
In another case, a student might get to the end of an interview with a client who has a problem with beat in his apartment and does not want to pay rent. If the student does not know what to do next, he can ask the computer for advice. "The computer contains as many nuggets of knowledge we can distill from experts, so the student types in a question and comes up with an expert answer." Getsinger says.
In fact, he adds, at its top capacity one video disk will be able to contain the equivalent of 500 volumes of law books.
Beyond advice, the computers will also help teach students who will "talk" to the computers through "video lessons."
Simulated court cases as well as lectures and problems will all be available to the students on video disks which will be on reserve at the library, just like books.
"The programs will be based on the teaching methods developed at the Law School over the past 100 years, but, interactive computer will be more like playing a game of adventure at its best, or like a highly structured tutorial," he adds.
The programs will even include staged video programs involving actors.
"One student working on a program roped in a judge and some professional actors," Getsinger says.
The students talk back to the television, he explained. "For example the lawyer on the video might ask, 'Have you stopped beating your wife lately?' This is obviously objectionable, and to say so, the student would simply have to type in the right word."