Online legal documents could become more commonplace with release of new software
Buying legal documents online may soon become more prevalent with the launch of a new software developed by a Taranaki firm.
The brain-child of the late Dennis King, the founder of New Plymouth-based Dennis King Law, and his daughter Claudia King, Automio allows lawyers and other businesses to create "flows"; a set of questions which can then be used to create customised documents such as wills, family trust deeds and confidentiality agreements.
Lawyer Zac Bingham, who came on board with the company at the start of the year, said while using software to automatically create documents wasn't a novel idea, the new programme is much cheaper than those used in the past which could lead to a quicker uptake.
Within three weeks of launching, it was already being used in Australia, parts of Asia and the UK with 70 people signed up as of Thursday.
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The idea behind the software was to take away the repetitive tasks often done by lawyers.
Instead, a flow could be set up once before providing a passive income while the lawyer was free to work on other cases.
Bingham said the cloud-based programme made it simple to create new "flows" for other documents.
"You're essentially breaking down the document into separate parts and you're building a road map," he said.
"And it collects points along the way and the software builds that kind of diagram into a questioner.
"Depending on how you answer, it creates the end product."
Law firms could use it to create their own questionnaires with their personal touch, before selling them on to clients in an online marketplace designed similar to Trade Me.
As online documents haven't been mainstream in the past, the question of whether the could be challenged in court is yet to be answered and Wellington lawyer Chris Kelly, who specialises in wills, trusts, estates and elder law, said while there was definitely a place for technology in law firms, he had reservations about using it to create legal documents.
"In some ways, setting up a will is harder to do online than something that might seem complicated like a family trust," he said.
"The thing about wills is that there are so many things that you need to think about, and you need to tell a client about."
He pointed to a case in the High Court in 2009, where Andrew Stirling, a man diagnosed with terminal cancer, had made a will but was later married which nullified the will and split everything between his wife and parents when he died.
While the court eventually upheld the will, Kelly said the case highlighted the importance of making sure someone knew the implications of each question they were asked, something that could be missed in an online setting in the same way most people accepted terms and conditions without bothering to read through them.
"Undoubtedly in time it may become more sophisticated and some of those risks may be ironed out, but I still think for a lot of people the best advice is go and see a lawyer and have a good chat about it if they don't know what they're doing," he said.
"Having said that, what would be worse than an online will would be people trying to make their own and that can be an unmitigated disaster and cost thousands and thousands of dollars trying to iron it out through the courts later."
Dr David Harvey, a retired district court judge who is now the director of the New Zealand Centre for ICT Law at Auckland University, said the new software wasn't a surprise and had been predicted by academics in the past.
That included British author Richard Susskind, who wrote in his 2013 book Tomorrow's Lawyers that new systems to replace the repetitive work were likely to come forward in coming years.
Harvey envisaged the programme could bring benefits for both lawyers and clients.
"It means the client gets considerable savings in terms of costs, there's a lot more client control over a particular process although it is machine based, and it means the lawyer is freed up to deal with those really complicated legal stuff lawyers are trained to do," he said.
"If you've got a really complicated property subdivision that requires an awful lot of time and effort and so on and so forth, you want to be able to devote your valuable time to that particular product rather than doing repetitive work that can be done by a machine."
- Sunday Star Times