Business and Technology students partner with local law firm to create web app for low-income clients

BA and ACE students with Evans Family LawIt’s being billed as the “TurboTax for law,” and Red River College students are helping to bring it to the web.

Students from the College’s Business Administration program and Applied Computer Education (ACE) department have partnered with Winnipeg’s Evans Family Law Corporation, to develop an interview-based web application that allows users to access and fill out basic family law documents themselves.

In the works since last year, the app is slated to be built and brought online by RRC students sometime in 2018.

“Access to justice, particularly in family law, has been recognized as a serious issue with the legal community for some time,” says Business instructor George Allen. “It is believed the kind of technology this project is looking to implement could play an important role in addressing some of the access issues inherent in the current system.”

Allen says the project would be designed to provide Manitobans with access to court forms using intelligent documents, and to use an interview-style dialogue process for gathering client data — much like TurboTax does to complete federal and provincial tax forms.

The prospect of saving thousands of dollars in legal fees could be particularly attractive to the large number of working Canadians for whom the ability to retain a lawyer is out of reach due to costs.

“If you’re working and you’re making a certain level of income, and you have a divorce proceeding or a wills and estate issue, you won’t qualify for Legal Aid because you make too much money or you own property,” says Allen (shown above, fourth from right). “You may also be in a situation where paying $300 an hour for a lawyer is really a hardship, or even out of the question.”

“An uncontested divorce or separation is really a straightforward process that most paralegals would normally be doing under the guidance and underwriting of a lawyer. So we’re looking at taking those forms and that process and providing it at a low cost to this particular population that otherwise likely wouldn’t have access to it.”

Greg Evans, principal at Evans Family Law, says the idea is to provide some of the same services already offered at Winnipeg’s Legal Help Centre, only for an online audience.

“People are much more used to having services provided online or through online websites and applications,” says Evans (shown above, second from right). “It’s an idea that takes a look at what potentially might be the wave of the future, particularly with simple legal documents.”

Allen says up to nine Business Administration students will be working on the project, conducting research to establish marketing and cost information, then pitching their ideas to the law firm.

Once the business validation and user-requirement stage is complete, students from the ACE programs will take the lead in developing the app.

The idea would be limited to family law issues for the time being, but Evans foresees the site being expanded to include other areas, such as corporate law. The long-term goal is to eventually move outside of Manitoba’s boundaries and partner on the app with individuals and firms in other provinces.

“Probably, at the onset, there’s not going to be a whole lot of revenue generated. We’re obviously hoping that it’s going to pay for itself,” he says. “But once you hit a critical mass, then there’s the opportunity for this to be profitable.”

This sort of idea is one that aligns perfectly with the College’s planned $95-million Innovation Centre in the Exchange District. Announced earlier this year, the Centre will bring students, instructors, researchers and industry together to work on commercialization projects for startups and small- and medium-sized enterprises.

“There’s a social component to it, there’s a public good component to it, there’s a business component to it with a client, and there’s collaboration,” says Allen.

“I really think it fires on all cylinders in respect to the Innovation Centre.”

Evans says partnering with the College was a natural fit for his firm.

“Red River College is that perfect mixture of practical and theoretical applications,” he says. “You’ve got everybody in one spot. You’ve got Marketing, you’ve got Business Administration, you have IT students. There’s an ability to put together teams that can come at the entire package.

“The idea of being able to work with students to help us take our vision and make into a practical reality is a very attractive idea.”