Automation and the Rule of Law: a discussion gets personal

David Burrows, a thoughtful commentator on family law and practice in England and Wales, took issue in a recent blogpost with comment on the role of technology in legal services. His ‘open note’ can be found at https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/innovation-and-an-online-family-law-sector/ and began:

 Hello Roger

 The nub of your article in New Law Journal 17 February 2017 seemed to be: ‘We are talking of automation of any element of a job which is predictable’. You were talking about automation of appropriate part of the legal process, and predicting job losses of between a third and a half in legal services just as in the motor industry …  I have felt for years that procedural clarity and reform to achieve savings of costs should precede legal aid starvation; and that if clarification is not achieved – a slightly different point – then the rule of law is threatened. Yes, yes, yes, you say… OK, I’ll come back to earth; but the need for a rule of law in all this must be kept in mind …

This is an open reply which David has also published.

Hello, David,

I am more than happy to debate the impact of new technology with you. I have been an admirer of your work for many years. Part of the whole point of the Legal Education Foundation’s initiative in the field of technology is to increase discussion of developments.

Let me make an opening point. The nub of my New Law Journal article was not really a focus on automation. My concern is to increase understanding of what is happening at a time when the provision and delivery of legal services is changing very fast and to indicate best practice and interesting experimentation around the world. Unlike Richard Susskind, I am not an advocate of the brave new world that is approaching: I am more of an analyst – with perhaps an exception to which I will return.

The legal world is changing under the pressure of a number of forces which are different though linked in their relationship to technology. The main drive for automation comes through the deployment of artificial intelligence. The main users are the large corporate firms who can afford the initial investment. Their aim is to cut the cost of processing large volumes of documents for the purposes of commercial transactions and litigations. The consequence will be the threatening of large numbers of jobs and potentially a restructuring of the ‘top end’ of the legal profession. There will be less need for trainees, solicitors, paralegals and outhousing if machines replace people in document review. And they will. That is where I think that if a job is predictable then it will be automatable.

“HIgh Street’ practice will be affected in a rather different way. Traditional, geographical based, relatively small firms will be challenged (though not necessarily over-run) by those which are virtual – maybe based, for example, as you are in France and covering the whole country – or under a national corporate brand like Co-operative Legal Services or Slater and Gordon. And note that word ‘like’. I know that both these businesses face specific financial problems. I don’t think that these are integral to their business model. I don’t think you can take a view about whether this is a good or bad thing. It just is. And practitioners will have to take their own response to what is happening.

A different force for change will be the headlong rush by the Lord Chancellor to introduce online courts at breakneck speed. You might think that this likely to be too fast; at a speed which precludes proper piloting; in a manner which is likely to pay no heed to the need for personal assistance highlighted in I, Daniel Blake; and fuelled too much by a desire to flog off valuable inner city real estate. That certainly is what I have repeatedly written. The jurisdiction which is in the advance in this field is British Columbia and it has been notably more humble, thoughtful and gradual in the implementation of its Civil Resolution Tribunal.

Linked to the proposed introduction of matrimonial on-line courts have been the cuts to matrimonial legal aid. These were outrageous and have manifestly left a whole constituency that even the government feels uneasy about drifting without assistance at a time of emotional turmoil. Their position as a whole will not be helped all that much by long overdue easing of definitions of domestic violence. In the light of these cuts, I am interested in how this gap might be met by technology and I have been impressed by interactive websites like the Dutch Rechtwijzer which have tried to leverage the value of the net by directing information to individual circumstances rather than just using a wallpaper model of dissemination. There is a real need here. The proper answer may be reinstatement of legal aid. That ain’t going to happen. We can lament that: I do. But we have to see how we can improve the information and advice to those who have all too much need for it.

The thing that actually got my interest in the field was a presentation at a conference of how the Californian courts had collaborated with an NGO in Canada to produce information on family breakdown. The Families Change programme has now gone national in Canada. This seemed such a good example of how technology is international even if law is irredeemably national. One of the most interesting parts of the project was a focus on the emotional needs of the children involved  rather than those of the parties to the litigation – who would generally be their parents. This seems to me an example of technology allowing an expansion of engagement with the human consequences of legal action that is not usual in conventional legal practice. I am an enthusiast in terms of encouraging such a trend.

So, I have no brief for legal aid cuts or simplistic implementation of on-line courts. And certainly none for any reduction of standards in relation to the rule of law and the quality of court determination. I do think that technology is going to change our whole world. And law will not escape. And there will be good and bad effects. And we need to analyse which are which. And we need to engage in debate and discussion at a specific level about what can practically be done.

Best wishes

Roger

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