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Artificial intelligence could help judges in online court

05/07/16

Top judge expected to recommend digital approach to cutting the logjam of civil justice.

Civil legal court disputes in England and Wales could be resolved online under proposals expected to be published this month by a senior member of the judiciary.

Lord Justice Briggs’ final report on improving the efficiency of civil justice is also expected to consider the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in assisting judges - and even in passing judgments.

Katie_Atkinson_smallThe Briggs report, due for publication by HM Judiciary in July, appears at a time of unprecedented interest in AI in the legal world. After decades of false starts, big law firms in the US and England are increasingly using AI software to sift through the mountains of documents and email evidence that accumulate in big commercial cases.

At a time when the government is desperately trying to cut the costs of the justice system, the question now is to what extent similar software can be used to speed up courts proceedings, especially in lower value claims.

Academics have already demonstrated that AI programs can be relied upon to replicate human judges’ decisions. Professor Katie Atkinson (pictured), head of the University of Liverpool’s Department of Computer Science, caused a stir at a recent conference of lawyers by revealing the success of an experiment in judging cases with AI.

Atkinson said that over "a body of case law" covering 32 previous cases, the computerised algorithm had a 96% success rate, getting only one case wrong. She added that the technique could become a decision support tool to help make judges reasoning “faster, more efficient and consistent”.

Too radical?

Such a concept may be too radical for the judiciary, which is still getting to grips with many aspects of practical IT. Briggs is stressing that he does not intend his court to be without judges or one where matters in dispute are determined automatically.

Instead, it “would be designed to have a permeable membrane between it and the county court, precisely to enable cases started in the online court to migrate to a more traditional (but still paperless) forum wherever the complexity or importance of the issues makes it appropriate”.

However, a leading legal futurologist, Professor Richard Susskind, has proposed that the online court could be a first step on the road to a fully integrated online and conventional court service. One problem will be designing the online court in a way that “conveys the authority” of traditional courts. The “majesty of the law” - much valued by judges - could be an early casualty of the robo-judge age.

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