By Rebecca MacFarlane
It was a day like any other – until it wasn’t.
Christien Levien, then a first-year student at York University, was on his way home from work when a Toronto police officer approached him and asked for his ID. When Levien questioned why, a second officer tackled him to the ground. Although he yelled for help, no one came to his aid. He was taken in for questioning only to be released later that day without any charges being laid or any explanation of why he had been initially stopped.
But Levien was not about to just let the matter drop. He went through the public complaints process and, after four trying years, one of the officers involved in the altercation was reprimanded for his actions.
This incident, and the subsequent police disciplinary process, prompted Levien to attend law school at uOttawa. It also motivated him to create a platform that would help educate others on their legal rights.
“I realized that, by empowering myself, I could, by extension, do the same for members of the broader community,” he said. “I also realized that public legal education is necessary to achieve access to justice.”
Informing others of their rights
The result is Legalswipe, a smartphone app that informs users of their legal rights during encounters with police. It can also record conversations with officers and send emergency broadcasts at the touch of a button.
The app demystifies legal jargon and tells users exactly what to ask during various scenarios, such as when an officer has asked for ID or wants to perform a search. Recordings can be automatically uploaded to a Dropbox account at specified intervals, so that even if a phone is confiscated after recording has begun, evidence of the conversation will be saved elsewhere.
“For the average person, navigating the Canadian justice system is tremendously daunting,” said Levien, who believes this complexity can prevent people from not only knowing, but also enforcing, their rights.
Levien knew his app needed to educate Canadians in a way that would resonate with them. After he received funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, he began providing technology-based workshops on arrest and detention in schools and community centres throughout Ontario.
“A lawyer in your pocket”
While he was determined to create an app that was simple to navigate, Levien also wanted it to be financially accessible to all.
“I believe that individuals needing legal information related to their protection under the law should be able to find this information both quickly and at no cost,” he said.
Since its launch in July 2015, Legalswipe has been downloaded thousands of times and has garnered media attention from networks such as BNN and CTV, who likened the app to having “a lawyer in your pocket.” In the future, Levien hopes to expand the educational scope of the related workshops to include concepts such as tenant eviction and workplace termination.
“Organizations such as the Ontario Justice Education Network do amazing work advocating and providing legal education to the community,” he said. “Similarly, my aim is to provide the community with a source of information that is simple, direct, and easily used in [real-life] applications.”