The Lord Chief Justice has called the ability of computers to use big data to predict outcomes “one of the most exciting developments of the age” and forecast the technology would be used to prevent litigation and promote settlements.
In the long run, while he doubted judges would be replaced by robots, he anticipated artificial intelligence (AI) would reduce the number of disputes reaching trial.
Giving public legal information website Bailii’s first Sir Henry Brooke annual lecture – a talk named after the late Court of Appeal judge who spent decades championing the role of computers in the law – Lord Burnett of Maldon also suggested critics of the growing use of video technology in the criminal justice system were “overplaying” their concerns.
The judge said much of the civil justice system would move online. He added: “There will inevitably be increased use of predictive analytics in the promotion of preventive dispute resolution and in the promotion of settlement…
“The ability of computers to analyse vast quantities of material to enable accurate predictions in many areas of human activity is one of the most exciting developments of the age.”
He described AI as “the transformative technology of our age”, adding:
“Its use will provide deep moral, social, economic and legal questions but we should not shut our eyes to its development.”
He said that “a small group, including far-sighted judges” had been convened under the chairmanship of Professor Richard Susskind “to think about the future beyond the current modernisation process”.
He anticipated that predictive analytic techniques would become more accurate, but said he did not believe that lawyers and judges would be replaced by algorithms in the future.
“But I do see algorithms and [AI] being used to provide at least preliminary legal advice in a broad range of circumstances, and in time leading to a reduction in the proportion of disputes that call for resolution at a final hearing in court.”
The LCJ pointed out that many of those who would be ‘digitally excluded’ by the online court and similar developments were disadvantaged under the current regime: “In the courts and tribunals these people, if unable to secure legal representation, rely heavily on voluntary bodies to give assistance and will continue to do so.”
He suggested that criticisms of the greater use of video than was currently the case were overblown: “The use of remote video access to court hearings has been with us for more than a decade and I do wonder whether some are overplaying this concern…
“Importantly, the use of special measures in criminal trials has been with us for many years including the use of remote video evidence…
“Video recorded interview of complainants is routinely used as evidence in chief in the Crown Court with the balance of the evidence via a live video link. The skies have not fallen in.”
Separately, a report  by the Social Market Foundation on “robot judges” raised doubts about their ability to take a rounded view of the impacts of their decisions, within the limitations of current technology.
The author, Elliott Ash, assistant professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said: “The decisions of current algorithms are a black box and cannot be explained to legal participants or the public.
“There is no assured way to purge pre-existing bias from the machine-predicted decisions.”
“And there are major technological and political challenges to developing and implementing a system that would read the laws and try to implement socially optimal policies.”