UAlberta Law students' prototype app improves access to justice for low-income renters

Work was showcased at international legal technology competition

Sarah Kent - 28 April 2020

After creating an app that makes the landlord/tenant dispute process more accessible, University of Alberta Faculty of Law students showcased their work at an international competition this month.

The 2020 Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, which focuses on student-led tech solutions that improve access to justice, had students virtually competing from around the world, including from Hong Kong, Australia and schools across the United States.

UAlberta was the only Canadian team at the competition.

UAlberta was represented by students Alec McIlwraith-Black, '20 JD, and Erin Peters, '21 JD. The app was created by McIlwraith-Black and Peters, along with Patrick White, '21 JD, Andrew Green, '21 JD, and Moriah Noel, '20 JD.

UAlberta Law instructor Jason Morris was the faculty lead for the app, which emerged from his Coding the Law course.

"Being the only Canadian law school at the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational really speaks to how unique the Coding the Law course was, and how determined Jason was to make sure that we all took something away from the course," said McIlwraith-Black.

The competition was originally planned to take place in person in Washington, DC., and Morris asked the Canadian legal tech community for financial support to send the team to the competition. In less than 48 hours, the team was fully funded to attend; the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted those plans.

The UAlberta team's app is named EMRLD, which stands for Electronic Means for Renter & Landlord Disputes, and was developed for the Edmonton Community Legal Centre (ECLC), an organization that offers free legal advice for low-income clients.

ECLC supports approximately 700 clients a year with applying to a tribunal for tenancy disputes. The high volume of applications has potential to be streamlined with this prototype, said Peters.

"One of the biggest practical challenges in improving access to justice is having limited resources to meet a high demand," she said. "If legal tech can be used to automate even part of the process, it will free up more human resources to help more people more efficiently."

The app was created with accessibility as a main goal, and the app's interview questions are written for a Grade 4 reading comprehension level. Clients are able to complete the interview process and generate the tribunal application form without additional assistance from ECLC staff. This frees up time for staff to discuss legal strategy and give advice when they meet with clients.

Morris hopes this app, which is still in the prototype stage, showcases how legal automation can benefit both clients and service providers.

"Canada is perceived as a heavyweight of legal technology knowledge," said Morris. Yet legal tech is lagging behind for pro bono organizations since they may not be aware of what is possible, he said.

While the team did not advance to the final round, it received positive feedback, praised for its comprehensive model and the app's fit with legal aid goals.

"The most valuable thing you can do for your client may not be the thing that wins a contest," said Morris, noting how proud he is of the students' accomplishments.

Morris will be running his Coding the Law course again in the fall and hopes to send another team to the 2021 Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational.