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Bad news for barristers: SFO adopts AI-powered document review after successful test in Rolls-Royce case

SFO: Bigger cases in the pipeline

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has bought a document review system backed up by artificial intelligence (AI) to improve significantly its document analysis capability – and put out of work barristers who it previously used to identify material subject to legal professional privilege.

The roll-out of US company OpenText’s Axcelerate product follows a live pilot on the SFO’s largest investigation, the Rolls-Royce case, in which it analysed an estimated 30m documents provided by the company to be analysed for potentially privileged material.

It is said to be the first criminal case in the UK to make use of AI.

Able to process more than half a million documents a day, the system operated 2,000 times faster than a human lawyer, the SFO said. Previously, independent barristers were used to sift out privileged material.

It enabled SFO case teams “to better target their work and time in other aspects of investigative and prosecutorial work”.

The SFO said the system could recognise patterns, group information by subject, organise timelines, and remove duplicates, and would eventually be able to sift for relevancy and remove documents unrelated to an investigation.

Its chief technology officer, Ben Denison, said: “AI technology will help us to work smarter, faster and more effectively investigate and prosecute economic crime.

“Using innovative technology like this is no longer optional – it is essential given the volume of material we are dealing with and will help ensure we can continue to meet our disclosure obligations and deliver justice sooner, at significantly lower cost.

“The amount of data handled by our digital forensics team has quadrupled in the last year and that trend is continuing upwards as company data grows ever larger.”

Mark Barrenechea, CEO of OpenText, added: “The Serious Fraud Office is leading the way in the use of digital technology to investigate economic crimes… Law enforcement organisations in the UK and as far away as Australia have looked to the SFO to share its experience of the technology, which will help investigators speed up casework and piece together evidence faster than ever before.

The SFO will begin managing all new cases with the technology from this month, with one case already exceeding Rolls-Royce in size with over 50m documents requiring review and another larger than both cases combined.