Lawtech can provide a “virtuous circle” that simultaneously both improves access to justice and delivers social, ethnic and gender mobility to the upper reaches of the legal profession, according to a senior judge.
Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Chancellor of the High Court, argued for technology-backed hearings in Business and Property Courts cases that did not involve lawyers and judges to be present, so as to enable lawyers – especially women – to be involved without devoting long working hours that interfered with home life.
Speaking last week to the Chancery Bar Association’s annual conference, he accepted that existing efforts to reform the diversity of the judiciary, while well-meaning and heading in the right direction, were not bringing change fast enough.
He admitted: “Try as we might, we still cannot seem to make the breakthrough to a senior judiciary that is more closely representative of society.”
Sir Geoffrey argued that, to achieve real success in a litigation practice, “we seem to require our lawyers at all levels to dedicate so much of their time to their professional activities, that there is inadequate time for a proper life. Many people are simply not willing to countenance the levels of commitment required to sustain a successful practice”.
Aspiring QCs, he continued, were required to “demonstrate achievements that can only be attained by working absurdly long hours”.
As a result, “a significant proportion of talented female lawyers (and indeed some male lawyers too) are deterred from wanting to undertake this kind of work at the highest level”, leading to a male-dominated judiciary.
There were “similar but subtly different reasons” why black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) barristers were discouraged as well.
“This, in my view, is caused at least in part by cultural and social factors. The higher echelons of the chancery and commercial Bars are still predominantly male and also socially, even culturally, homogeneous.
“The Bar is not unique in this; and it is not intentional, but it still requires attention.”
He argued that while there was a place for traditional hearings requiring all parties to be present, many others could be “asynchronous” rather than “synchronous” – fewer that required “everyone to be in one room at one time; and cutting down the times for responses in an era when everyone checks their mobile phones dozens of times a day”.
Sir Geoffrey, a former chairman of the Social Mobility Foundation, said litigation reform would also help with social and ethnic mobility, by increasing the chance of “attracting and retaining a more diverse cross-section of talented young people to the legal profession… [which would] impact on the pool for senior judicial office, making it… more reflective of the BAME members of our society”.
Technology-powered remote hearings “would be potentially less dependent on the social environment of the courtroom, which might make it easier for the talented less-privileged entrant to the legal profession to get to the top.”
Other consequences of adopting new dispute resolution methods were that it would provide an example to other jurisdictions and give UK-based courts a competitive advantage, while “competitor courts and arbitration centres [are] springing up all over the world”.
As well as reducing the cost of litigation, it would improve access to justice and enable lawyers “to work when they wanted, and when it suited their family commitments, rather than having to be tied to all-night or anti-social working hours to suit the timing of synchronous court hearings in every case”.
The judge concluded: “The prize for success will be a more balanced and highly talented pool available for judicial office to which we have aspired for many years now.”