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Susskind advocates role of AI in transforming courts

Susskind: Online system can often trump traditional system

A future justice system could use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to inform people of their chances of success and even provide automated determinations, according to futurist Professor Richard Susskind.

What he called these ‘front ends’ to the justice system could be provided by the private sector, educational bodies, charities, or a combination of these, to reduce the cost and administrative burden of disputes, while preserving the traditional system for cases that really need to be facilitated by lawyers and adjudicated by judges.

Giving the online Sir Henry Brooke lecture 2020, The future of courts: increasing access to justice, Professor Susskind elaborated on his well-known theories on technology and the courts, explaining that AI was likely to play a bigger role in future, with online courts standard for many claims.

He concluded: “I believe there is no aspect of justice for low-value civil claims in which [the] traditional system outperforms the online system.

“Indeed, in many aspects… I believe the online system trumps the traditional system.”

He acknowledged there were many objections to the idea of online courts and they tended to use concepts of justice at their root. But, he observed, “it’s paradoxical that most people who support online courts also invoke justice”.

He explained that the current pandemic had demonstrated that video hearings “work fairly well” and that most research so far “suggests the level of service is mostly satisfactory”.

Judges and lawyers had adapted quickly, some had even changed their mind about the technology, but while there were some who could see there would be no return to the past, others were simply waiting until the virus passed.

While accelerating automation technology in some respects, Covid-19 had actually decelerated genuine transformation, he argued. “Dropping court hearings into Zoom is not a ‘shift in paradigm’.”

AI software might play several transformative roles in future. Firstly, it would help provide accurate guidance to court users. Secondly, it could “help to predict the outcome of the case when people are in the early stages of their case”.

Thirdly and most controversially, at some point in the future it was possible, he said, that predictions could even become judgments. He explained that while computers might not replace humans altogether, there was the possibility of “these predictive systems providing binding determinations”.

It was important that objectors accepted that the present system was imperfect and denied many people access to justice. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

If lawyers and judges who hankered for the comfortable past did not recognise this, “there is a danger here that many of the critics are missing the chance to reduce manifest injustice”.

He went on: “The key issue, if your concern is genuinely access to justice, is not whether online courts will replace traditional courts or which of the two are superior, it is whether online courts can take on some of the work that traditional courts do not or cannot.”