Federal justice department testing artificial intelligence to predict results in public service labour and employment cases

Illustration by Hanna Lee

The federal justice department is using artificial intelligence to predict the outcomes of labour and employment cases involving public-sector workers. 

A team within the department is conducting a pilot project using Toronto-based Blue J Legal’s Employment Foresight tool, which is designed to help legal practitioners find precedents and game out scenarios on issues like worker classification, reasonable notice for a dismissal and disability accommodation. “The Government of Canada is the single biggest employer in the country, so they’re a natural user of this kind of software,” said Benjamin Alarie, the startup’s CEO.

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Talking Point

The federal justice department is applying Blue J Legal’s AI platform to conduct research for and forecast the outcomes of labour and employment cases within the public service. The pilot project is Ottawa’s second application of the Toronto-based startup’s software, following a successful test of its tax law tools.

The year-long pilot was launched in June 2019 as part of Ottawa’s R&D procurement program to help innovative firms test new products and services and get user feedback.

The federal government and its arm’s-length agencies employed 287,978 people as of March 2019. The justice department unit that’s testing Employment Foresight provides legal advice to the Treasury Board Secretariat, which acts as the employer for the federal public service. It would not disclose the specific cases for which the team is using the new system, but the pilot is particularly focused on “human rights and discipline,” said spokesperson Ian McLeod. 

The pilot is restricted to instances involving the government’s role as an employer; separately, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada pursues cases involving Labour Code and employment law violations. And McLeod emphasized that the tool is meant to aid, not replace, lawyers. “The [department’s] work with AI-based legal tools is aimed at facilitating legal research to inform [its] counsel,” he said. “It is not used to automate decision-making in particular areas of law.”

Blue J’s platform applies machine learning models to past court rulings and tribunal decisions to predict the outcome of a user’s scenario. Among Employment Foresight’s most popular features is a system for determining the length of notice an employer must provide a worker being dismissed, according to Alaire. 

A more recent addition, suggested by a customer, is a tool to assess responses to requests for accommodations. “That’s very helpful for employers like the Government of Canada who want to do right by their employees and make sure they’re actually doing everything required of them to accommodate workers who have disabilities,” he said. 

The federal government’s contract with Blue J is worth $424,776, per the federal deal disclosure database. The Employment Foresight pilot covers software and training for up to 30 staff, according to Hans Parmar, a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. The department manages the Innovative Solutions Canada program, through which the pilot is being run.  

Ottawa first took an interest in Blue J in 2015, shortly after a group of University of Toronto law professors co-founded it. “The Department of Justice was actually very proactive in wanting to learn more about machine learning [and] artificial intelligence,” said Alarie, who was invited to speak to officials from that ministry, as well as finance, on his academic research into AI and law. 

The justice department has already run a pilot of Blue J’s Tax Foresight software, which addresses issues like whether a non-resident company’s income is taxable in Canada, or whether its work qualifies for federal scientific research and experimental development credits. That 18-month test began in January 2018; Alarie said the department has since renewed its subscription.

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The firm’s agreement with the federal government includes making its employment system available in French, and it’s also working on a bilingual version of the tax product, which Alarie said will launch “by the middle of this year.” Revenu Québec is doing its own pilot with the tax software. 

The company sees further opportunities for growth in the public sector. “We’re providing a research tool that helps [users] understand what the thousands of cases that have been decided would entail for the next case,” said Alarie. “It saves an enormous amount of time and provides clarity … about what the law really requires.”

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