Guest post by Sarah Hair, graduating law student at Queen’s University Belfast, and winner of the National Law Student Triathlon 2023, run by Kent Law School and Legal Futures Associate Thomson Reuters
As a pandemic-produced law student graduating this summer, my cohort has perhaps undertaken the most technology-dependant law school experience thus far. The norm for us has been online lectures, pre-recorded materials, Teams breakout rooms, digital handouts, take-home exams – and, in particular, virtual mooting.
Mooting has been the highlight of my degree, providing unparalleled practical experience and advocacy skill development. With the shift back to in-person advocacy events, including the National Law Student Triathlon, I have learned the pros and cons of both physical and video-link courtrooms.
The former has entailed printing square acres of paper in the form of bundles, skeletons and other materials for a mere 20 minutes of speaking; the latter occasioned judges disappearing into cyberspace mid-sentence and losing chunks of oral submissions to choppy audio.
The best of both worlds
Virtual mooting brought with it e-bundles, PDF highlighting, internal hyperlinking, the ability to keyword search terms with ctrl-F (even in older scanned cases with OCR text recognition) – and of course, undoing mistakes (ctrl-Z).
Yet while online competition rounds save mooters considerably in travel costs and carbon footprint – particularly for the Queen’s University Belfast team – in-person mooting still provides something irreplicable in terms of authenticity and human interaction.
The triathlon was thus an ideal balance of the above advantages, combining use of the Thomson Reuters Case Center platform for e-bundle amalgamation with the opportunity to negotiate and advocate in person before esteemed practitioners and judges.
In terms of networking, the event also presented invaluable opportunities to connect with legal professionals, as well as fellow students from over 20 different universities throughout the UK – a truly exceptional occasion in bringing together so many like-minded future advocates.
Additionally, there are very few first-instance advocacy opportunities on offer in comparison to those at appellate level; previously, I had never prepared submissions for a first-instance hearing or to request court orders, nor competitively negotiated.
Prior to the triathlon, I was certainly very familiar with Westlaw (perhaps unhealthily dependant on the precedent map feature!) but had not used the Case Center evidence management system before. I found the software self-explanatory to a great extent and so did not need to avail of the support on offer.
Of particular help was the cloud-based nature of the system, eliminating the need for email exchange, and the automated compiling of authorities into PDF master-bundles, something mooters frequently have to do with questionable online PDF tools.
While I found it more efficient within the limited timeframe of the competition to simply refer the court to bundle pages, the option to digitally direct the court to the relevant evidence or page using presentational tools would foreseeably be immensely useful ‘in real life’, to ensure witnesses and all present have the correct document before them.
Assistive versus generative technology
I recently took part in an online panel discussion where, as a student participant, I was asked about my thoughts regarding the disruptive technologies we are starting to see in the profession.
Personally, I have not found generative artificial intelligence (AI) or language models like ChatGPT helpful in advocacy preparation. Although the AI has been of some use in summarising case facts and ratios in running prompts related to problem scenarios, the information extracted has lacked the nuance which appellate mooting requires.
Interplay between competing authorities, finer points of obiter dicta and policy influences seem out of reach, at least presently. Particularly concerning was an instance where the AI essentially fabricated a case – with precisely the ratio I desired – by Frankensteining two random party names together along with a citation belonging to a different case entirely.
Conversely, assistive technology has been precisely that, from my humble experience. I certainly see digitisation of evidence, written submissions, and bundles of authority as the way forward in terms of ensuring effective amalgamation and streamlined exchange pre-hearing, as well as efficient navigation and presentation during hearings.
Here in Northern Ireland, the Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has recently committed to digital modernisation with the appointment of the judicial digitisation steering group, headed by Lord Justice Mark Horner.
The Judicial Modernisation Paper, published in September 2021, details our judiciary’s views on how modern courts can utilise technology to provide just, proportionate and accessible outcomes. Key aims include reducing reliance on paper-based systems and ensuring courtrooms have stable infrastructure to support efficient use of e-bundles and electronic evidence.
As noted by former NI Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, it is necessary to “build on the solid foundations which have already been put in place as we have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and adapt to new and innovative ways of working in the digital age”.