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Big Sky Thinking in Big Sky Country - the future of automated document assembly

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Big Sky Thinking in Big Sky Country - the future of automated document assembly

Few readers will be assiduous followers of legal developments in access to justice within the US state of Montana. So the chances are that most missed a recent story. On 7 July, Montana Legal Services tweeted about assistance for former tenants needing help in get return of their security deposit. This included a link to an interactive deposit demand letter drafted by Self-drafted document assembly is something of a US specialism. There are, by contrast, very few examples in the UK. Out of staters might find it instructive, therefore, to take a further look at Montana’s draft and any wider lessons that it might have.

Problems with the return of tenants’ deposits at the end of a tenancy are pretty common around the world. Landlords are often reluctant to shell out the cash that they have previously taken. So acute has the problem become in England and Wales that the area is subject to a trail of regulating legislation – most recently the Tenant Fees Act 2019. This amends legislation in 2004 that requires tenant deposits to be registered and protected. It places a statutory limit on the amount of a deposit.

Outsiders’ knowledge of Montana, by contrary, is probably more limited. For those similarly ignorant to the writer, the state is nicknamed ‘Big Sky Country’ (I only knew that from a crossword clue a couple of months ago). More prosaically, the state motto is ‘gold and silver’ (in Spanish). The capital is Helena and the largest city Billings. The now defunct Billings Outlaws were a professional indoor football team (they play American football indoors?), the zip code for whose onetime base allows handy appropriation for anyone wishing to subject the interactive letter drafting to a practical test.

Cross-jurisdictional writings are full of potential bear traps – from cultural references to legal differences. Let me begin with a resonant quote from onetime British hit group, The Animals, (whose rendering of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ surely merits continuing international fame):

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Please don’t let me be misunderstood’.

Google reveals that this might be a subconscious echo of Abraham Lincoln on the potential longevity of slavery. But the point here is that no negative criticism of Montana’s letter is intended.  Quite the contrary. It is head and shoulders above anything available in the UK. But, perhaps because of that, a number of interesting points arise if you look at in  some detail.

To get to the form, you begin at the relevant Montana Law Help page. The letter is contextualised. There is information on general issues relating to security deposits. There is another piece on asking your landlord to return your security deposit which gives a form letter which you can complete. And there is some helpful practical assistance: ‘It may be better to wait more than 30 days after you move to send your letter to the landlord. The law says your landlord must send you a list of deductions no more than 30 days after you move out. If your landlord waits more than 30 days to send you the list, the law does not allow the landlord to keep any of your security deposit for cleaning or damage. So, if you send your letter before the 30 days is up, your landlord could send you a list within 30 days that deducts for cleaning or damage. A landlord who makes deductions after 30 days cannot legally deduct for cleaning or damage.’

The form letter now allows for automated completion via a link to the LawHelp Interactive site. The process is in seven easy stages in which you input the important information (relevant addresses, dates, amounts). You get a printable letter. The programme even exceeds its own express limitations. Despite dire warnings for Word non-users, in fact the draft downloaded to my Mac programme unproblematically...

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