It is “five years too late” for regulators in the UK to provide “any meaningful response” to the challenges raised by artificial intelligence (AI), the chief executive of the Legal Services Board (LSB) said yesterday.
Matthew Hill also described as the introduction of an oath to uphold ethical principles which lawyers could swear on qualification, similar to the ones used by medical schools, as a “very interesting idea”.
Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar, ‘Next steps for legal ethics’, Mr Hill said he had been a regulator “for a long time” and regulators “needed to be better at highlighting emerging trends and reacting”.
As an example, he said: “It is five years too late for any meaningful response to AI.”
The comment drew an immediate reaction from the panel chair, former justice secretary Robert Buckland, who is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in the US, where he is researching, among other things, AI and digital courts.
“We’ve got to do something,” Mr Buckland said. “There’s no point in saying we’re too late.”
Mr Hill replied: “There’s no time to prevaricate. The time to prevaricate was five years ago.”
Mr Buckland said earlier that AI was “not just a question of technology, but a question of ethics in my view” and there was a need for “greater global leadership”, given that the issue was “very prevalent in many jurisdictions”.
Mr Hill said the debate about ethics in the legal profession came against a “background of growing public and professional concern”, and “failures in professional conduct” which had damaged the standing of the profession.
Mr Hill said the LSB was “not anti-lawyer – anything but”. However, being a lawyer was “more than just a job” and was a fundamental role on which society depended “profoundly”.
Precisely because the LSB supported this role, it was “so important to get ahead of public concern on ethics”.
Mr Hill referred to a Twitter post by a law firm partner on the Post Office scandal, which accused “almost the entire legal profession” of remaining silent.
He said the review of in-house lawyers earlier this month by the Solicitors Regulation Authority raised “quite serious concerns” about the difficulties they faced and a “compelling case for future action”.
Meanwhile there was a “debate to be had” in relation to lawyers not wanting to represent particular clients, for which climate change had become the “poster child”.
Following the “high-profile events of the last few weeks” – which included the publication of a Declaration of Conscience by more than 120 lawyers who refuse to act for fossil fuel clients or prosecute environmental activists – Mr Hill said the issue was “unlikely to go away”.
This left an “enormous opportunity to strengthen and underpin ethical practice” and the LSB would take forward conversations on how regulation could help.
Responding to a question about whether lawyers should swear an oath to uphold the rule of law on qualification, Mr Hill said he was interested in understanding the impact of the oath sworn by some medical practitioners.
“If some form of meaningful oath can be found, it’s a very interesting idea.”
In fact, newly qualified chartered legal executives have sworn an oath since 2012.
This says: “I promise to discharge diligently my duties and responsibilities as a chartered legal executive. I will protect my independence as a lawyer, uphold the rule of law, and act at all times with integrity.
“I will justify the confidence and trust that is placed in me by my clients, the courts, the public and by my profession.”
Mr Hill added that the LSB was “not advocating a Rolls Royce approach, but a realistic approach” to professional ethics.
“Some of the most difficult conflicts lawyers face are between commercial reality and their professional responsibilities.”
There were times when taking an ethical decision would mean making less money, but in the longer term it would “underpin the reputation of England and Wales as a good place to do business”.