Neuberger urges debate over ethical implications of artificial intelligence

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20 June 2016

Lord Neuberger

Neuberger: “greater prominence” needed for ethics training

The president of the Supreme Court last week called for a debate on the ethical implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and for “greater prominence” for ethics in legal training.

Lord Neuberger also warned once again of increased potential for ethical conflicts where alternative business structures (ABSs) were owned by non-lawyer investors who are “ultimately only concerned with the bottom line”.

Delivering the Lord Slynn memorial lecture, Lord Neuberger referred to Professor Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book, The Future of the Professions.

He said the book suggested that “professional work which appears to involve the very human qualities of expertise, creativity and interpersonal skills will be capable of being done by robots or AI”.

Lord Neuberger went on: “The Susskinds point out that this potential development has ethical as well as employment implications and they call for a public debate on the issue.

“There are many who are sceptical about the Susskinds’ predictions, but there is no doubt but that they could be right. The legal profession should, I suggest, be preparing for the problems and opportunities which would arise from such an enormous potential area of development, and one of the most difficult challenges will be to consider the potential ethical implications and challenges.”

Lord Neuberger also made a plea for “greater prominence” for ethics training both on university law courses and professional legal training courses.

He said one of the downsides of “relatively high-profile regulation” is that it could easily lead to “an attractive culture which effectively takes high ethical standards for granted being replaced by a box-ticking approach”.

Lord Neuberger said the “earlier and more effectively” potential professional lawyers and advocates could be trained to “appreciate and understand the importance and nature of their ethical duties, the stronger a legal profession we will have, and the stronger the rule of law will be”.

Back in 2013 the judge urged the legal profession not to lose sight of its fundamental principles in the rush for modernisation, warning about the risks of pressure from “hard-nosed businessmen” who may invest in law firms.

The speech last week showed he has not changed his mind. “The risk of conflict in an ABS, where the law firm is owned wholly or partly by non-lawyers, is obvious: the investors will often have no experience of, or interest in, the lawyers’ ethical duties, and will often be ultimately only concerned with the bottom line.

“The pressure they may put on the lawyers in the firm is likely to be such as to increase the potential for conflicts, but once again I hope that the temptations to which these developments give rise will be resisted as a result of the high standards of the legal profession in this country.”

Earlier in his speech, he referred to the “self-evident” problem with the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) that advocates would “want to impress” judges acting as assessors, but their duty to clients may mean they made submissions which may “annoy or unimpress” the judge.

Lord Neuberger said “the role of QASA assessor will also present potential conflicts for criminal judges, as well as adding to their already heavy and demanding duties”.

However, he said he was not “implying hostility to QASA”, and “given that there is a need for assessment of criminal advocates, and no money will be forthcoming for other independent assessors, the alternatives are stark: no scheme or a scheme with trial judges as assessors”.

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