University of Alberta law students win international legal technology competition

Novel police complaints app takes top prize at Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational

Helen Metella - 30 April 2021

Four students from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law have won an international competition with their unique legal technology application that improves access to justice for citizens filing complaints about police services.

The team of second-year JD students Karyna Omelchenko, Prabhjot Punnia and Darren Wagner, and third-year student Denis Ram prevailed over six other finalists to win the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, held virtually at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C., on April 29 and 30.

Their guided interview complaints app uses plain language questions to determine whether legal grounds for complaints exist. It then generates a formal complaint letter that cites the relevant statutes for each ground.

It further submits the complaint letter, anonymously if requested, to all the levels of oversight for the Police Act, including the chief of police, the police commission, the department of professional standards for the police service, and the provincial minister of justice.

“I am very grateful to be chosen among other excellent candidates who have as much passion and drive to improve access to justice, said Omelchenko, who with Punnia created the coding for the app.

“Our research led us to incorporate various design elements such as easy navigation, human-like interaction, and plain language to ensure accessibility of the app and to prevent re-traumatization of the users,” she said.

“By focusing on marginalized and over-policed individuals, we were inspired to come up with innovative coding and design elements. This was the most challenging and the most interesting aspect of designing it.”

Global competitors

Judges for the 2021 competition said it was the best crop of competitors ever for an event that is a decade old. Teams from as far away as Singapore and Melbourne presented apps to solve such access-to-justice issues as the disadvantages facing low-income tenants and the crushing debt problems of formerly incarcerated people.

The judges chose the University of Alberta’s entry because of its novelty as the first such solution worldwide for improving the police complaints process; its timeliness as a response to the George Floyd murder last summer; the extensive engagement the students made with all of the stakeholders; and its excellent user experience.

They were also impressed that it can not only be adapted by other police services but also potentially for corporate settings to deal with complaints of harassment and abuse.

Its plain language makes it easy to use, especially for those who speak English as an additional language, and will allow it to be translated easily into other languages.

Adoption imminent

With some funding from a $10,000 seed grant offered through the University of Alberta (via the Kule Institute for Advanced Study and the AI4Society Signature Area) and the Edmonton Police Service, plus another $45,000 the team expects to receive from the City of Calgary, the app is already entering final stages of development before potentially going online to replace Calgary’s current online police complaint process. Development will likely include translation into Arabic, Punjabi, and select Chinese and Indigenous languages.

The lack of a consistent way to file complaints has been identified as a barrier to helping address systemic racism in the Calgary Police Service by anti-racism activists, municipal politicians, the provincial justice minister and police chiefs.

The winning app uses an open-source legal-automation tool called DocAssemble. The students are part of the Digital Law Innovation Society, a student group focused on taking to the next level their access to justice projects that were inspired by Faculty coursework that has a digital law focus.