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Chatbot advice for lockdown-hit workers

Your contact with the law starts at birth, says Grace Gichanga. “There are legal contractual obligations that happen at many steps in your life journey. But only when you find that you’re in trouble, you realise, ‘Oh wow, I need to know what’s happening here’.”

Gichanga is the creator of Luma, a legal advice chatbot that helps ordinary people access information about their rights and the law when they most need it.

“It’s important that people actually have a platform where they can go to to get the information that us lawyers keep to ourselves, behind all our legalese. Just for you to understand: Okay, what do I need to do? How do I need to do it? … And do I need a lawyer?”

Contrary to popular belief, Gichanga adds, the legal system in South Africa has been developed for people to be able to do a lot of things on their own.

Gichanga came up with the idea for the chatbot after running legal literacy workshops for two years. “I was utterly exhausted, because I found that I had more people contacting me on WhatsApp than people I actually knew,” she tells the Mail & Guardian.

“So I would have people contacting me from the Northern Cape, from the Free State, from Limpopo … And for me it was just a matter of [feeling] there must be an easier way to get to give people the information that they’re looking for.”

When faced with the daunting task of navigating the legal maze, people often don’t know where to turn, Gichanga says. The aim of Luma is to let people know “you’re not stuck”.

“It also tells you there is a pro bono firm here. You can go to this organisation. You can go to legal aid … We have options, even when you can’t afford legal assistance.”

Luma was launched earlier this year, just when the lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 had left many workers uncertain about how their jobs would be affected. During the lockdown, many workers were furloughed, had their salaries cut or lost their jobs. More than two million South Africans lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19’s economic blow.

Gichanga hopes the chatbot will be able to fill some of the void left behind by an under-resourced Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which will have its budget cut by R600-million over the next three years. 

Covid-19 and budget cuts mean that there are no walk-ins at the CCMA — how most South Africans ordinarily access the statutory body — and that there will likely be fewer commissioners able to tackle a mounting caseload. The CCMA has encouraged people to access its services online. Gichanga says the turn to digital presents a whole new set of challenges for people looking for help. 

Grace Gichanga is the creator of LUMA (Legal Understanding Made Accessible), a chatbot that provides freely accessible legal advice. Maboneng, Johannesburg. (James Puttick)

“You can’t just walk into these spaces anymore. So when you go and look for the information, do you go on Google? If you are googling, you need to think about how much data you have,” she says. “You can go on multiple websites, but you still might not find what you’re looking for. And when you do find it, will you even understand the information?”

The often cold, detached process of finding help online can also leave people feeling discouraged and more alone than ever. To tackle this, Luma is being trained to be more human, Gichanga says. 

“For me, that’s the future of the bot. The bot should actually provide a real conversation — real engagement with the user — as opposed to people just being able to go online and find information on a website,” she adds.

“We want it to be a really immersive experience. Because, at the end of the day, if you can do more for yourself, you end up feeling more empowered. You end up feeling more in control. And you end up feeling less stuck.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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