Thompson Rivers University

Innovative law course unique in Canada

November 17, 2016

A TRU Law professor passionate about innovation and access to justice is blazing a trail on the Canadian legal education landscape.

Assistant Professor Katie Sykes has developed a new and unique law course—one of the first of its kind offered in Canada—that teaches students to use technology to automate the application of legal knowledge by developing apps that can be easily used by anyone.

The course is called Designing Legal Expert Systems: Apps for Access to Justice.

“It’s about taking legal knowledge and rules as a series of decision-making trees and translating that onto a tech platform that creates an app,” explained Sykes.

Using a software the law school has licensed from US-based legal technology firm Neota Logic, the students will work with non-profit ‘client’ organizations to develop the type of app, problem it will solve and types of users.

“Students will make a tangible, meaningful impact by developing a platform that allows quick and convenient access to legal information in language that is easy to understand,” said Sykes.

Sykes is very excited that one of the first partner organizations to get on board addresses an area very near and dear to her heart—animals.

“For Animal Justice Canada, the idea is to create an animal cruelty reporting app. So if you think you are witnessing animal cruelty, the app will allow you to do a quick legal assessment (whether there is a violation of the law or not) and tell you where and to whom you should report. Potentially you could even upload photos and video.”

“These apps will allow the client organizations to leverage legal expertise at Internet scale.”

There are a handful of other partner organizations who have signed on as well, with related apps enhancing access to justice for a variety of users including tenants, women and self-represented litigants (see the list of partner organizations below).

As for the course technology, Sykes says it is very user-friendly. Students don’t need to understand code as the Neota platform has a drag and drop function to build the decision-making trees.

The course is modelled after a similar one at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., taught by clinical law expert Professor Tanina Rostain. Recognizing the need to graduate law students who can think and apply their skills using modern technology was the catalyst for Sykes to push for developing the course at TRU Law.

“I’m interested in how we can advance the legal education curriculum and profession in general—in terms of serving clients—by using technology. Access to justice is becoming a legitimate crisis and incorporating technology to improve how society has access to and interacts with the legal system will be necessary for future lawyers.”

Devon O’Grady, a second-year student from St. John’s, Newfoundland, said he plans to take the course.

“To be able to address some of the target areas to enhance access to justice, and to work with and build relationships with the organizations will be a great experience. I think it will be a really fun course,” he said.

To Sykes’ knowledge, she has only heard of a handful of American law schools, and two in Australia, offering a similar course. In Canada, Sykes is only aware of a similar course at Osgoode Hall, however, that course uses a different platform.

Registration for the January 2017 course is open to second and third year law students.

January 2017 Partner Organizations:
Animal Justice Canada
Rise Women’s Legal Centre, Vancouver
Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (TRAC), Vancouver
Canadian Internet Policy and Public Internet Clinic (CIPPIC)
National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP)
ACORN Canada

For more information:
Katie Sykes
Assistant Professor, TRU Law

Listen to Professor Sykes on the Jim Harrison show, Nov. 23, 2016:

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