Online courts: enough with the tinkering

Mark Madden, Deputy Director, Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia


There is a growing interest in Australia on how design thinking and artificial intelligence can improve access to justice and close the ‘justice gap’ if attendance at a recent forum at RMIT University in Melbourne in early July 6 is anything to go by,

The forum, hosted by RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice in partnership with Victoria Legal Aid and National Directors of Legal Aid Commissions, attracted 460 attendees and was live-streamed on the night, with 278 users tuning in from all over Australia and around the world. The forum followed an address in May at Victoria University by Professor Richard Susskind OBE which was also attended by many hundreds of people.

The Access to Justice, Design Thinking and Artificial Intelligence forum, included short presentations on design thinking and artificial intelligence and a demonstration of the revolutionary online dispute resolution system Rechtwijzer 2.0, which has been developed via a partnership including Dutch Legal Aid, HiiL Innovating Justice and Modria.

Dutch Legal Aid’s former director, Peter van den Biggelaar, and the Hague’s Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL) Maurits Barendrecht, who presented Rechtwijzer 2.0, were also guests at a number of ’roundtables’ arranged by the Centre for Innovative Justice involving key legal system stakeholders, including judges and magistrates, courts and tribunal administrators, State and Commonwealth departmental officials, lawyers and academics as well as members of the design community.

In setting the scene for the forum, the Director of the Centre for innovative Justice (CIJ), Rob Hulls, a former Attorney-General of the State of Victoria, said that a ‘fresh set of eyes’ was needed for thinking about the future of the justice system and potential of design and technology. We needed to stop thinking about ‘solutions that can ‘bolt on’ to our existing and overburdened and, in many cases, past its use-by date adversarial legal system. It was time to rethink and redesign the system with the user in mind and with the goal of meeting the current massive unmet legal demand. It was important to acknowledge what lawyers have known for a long time: that the current legal system was not actually designed with the majority of its end users in mind. The result, as the CIJ’s Affordable Justice report identified was that there are too many people sandwiched out of legal assistance and redress. What’s more, there are plenty of people out there who do not even recognise their problem as legal in nature, or do not contemplate seeking the legal system’s help.

Too often policy makers get caught in a conundrum about increasing access to justice. The thinking goes that, if we improve access, we will simply increase demand on the court system, one that is already bursting at the seams. In addition, the use of technology and other innovation can be seen as a threat by some quarters of the legal profession – it’s seen as doing them out of a job, and as rendering practice irrelevant. However, by using a fresh set of eyes, reimagining the system, and introducing modern technologies more people should be able to get access to justice without overburdening the system legal skills and practice cold be more effectively targeted at those issues and those cases which most need assistance.

The Managing Director of Legal Aid, Bevan Warner, believes that Australia can lead the way based on its history of innovation, invention and entrepreneurship. Just as the ‘Combine Harvester’ revolutionised agriculture, ‘Wi-Fi’ has revolutionised the way we act and connect with information. He could see no reason why well educated people of good will, operating in the sixteenth largest economy in the world, with a proven record in oil and gas and mining innovation, cannot lead the world in rethinking how we use adaptive technologies to close the justice gap. It was better to borrow than to reinvent the wheel and the legal assistance sector’s efforts would be assisted by making space for true collaboration across a range of disciplines. Australia had a rich tradition of pro bono legal assistance – lawyers who generously donate countless hours to helping disadvantaged Australians who would otherwise miss out — but the development of the new frontiers of legal assistance services, will increasingly require new pro bono partners – from the tech, innovation and design community. He was not so naïve to think that any one technology will “solve” access to justice. Indeed, we may see other social problems emerge from this period of rapid technological change. We were starting to see that automated technologies and artificial intelligence offer the opportunity to provide services on an almost unimaginable scale and while we must be alert to the potential for injustice, we must also be alive to the potential for these technologies to bring the law to the very people it exists to serve.


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