Are online courts the future of justice?
Cyber courts with AI-judges and evidence exchanges via mobile apps have been introduced in Hangzhou, China in order to increase the speed of the legal system - “because justice delayed is justice denied” as Vice President in Hangzhou Internet Court, Ni Defeng expressed it. This brave new world of online courts could and should be unrolled on a more global scale according to the so-called "Godfather of Legal Tech", Richard Susskind, in his new book Online Courts and the Future of Justice.
Susskind's great influence is mainly due to his futuristic books The Future of Law (1996), The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the nature of legal services (2008) and Tomorrow’s Laywers (2013) where he reports on a legal industry dominated by inefficiency, heavy fees and absurd structures. Lawyers must, therefore, reinvent themselves to work alongside technologies in order to deliver better legal services for modern legal clients who demand more for less. This prediction might seem basic to those who work with legal innovation but Susskind already made the case that the business of law would be radically changed by disruptive technologies such as the internet back in 1996. That claim was dismissed by many, but today, he is globally perceived as a legal tech guru. Nowadays, people listen when Susskind reports what he sees in his legal tech crystal ball.
The decreasing access to justice
This time, his message goes out directly to the future litigators: “you should know that most disputes in the future will be resolved in online courts rather than in physical hearings,” he said in an exclusive comment in LegalCheek. The main driver in the move towards online court systems is that the current system is broken. OECD only 46 % of the world population live under the protection of the law, and even in highly developed countries the access to justice is decreasing. In the 1980s, 80 % of households in England could pay for legal aid. By 2008, that number had dropped to 29 %. The current system is costly, it is slow and somehow unintelligible. The conventional court system is increasingly unaffordable for businesses too, and which creates huge inequality issues as parties that can retain legal advisers have clear advantages.
The main motivation of legal technologies should, therefore, be to improve the accessibility to legal services and thereby make it easier for everyone to understand and enforce their legal entitlements. According to Susskind, it is primarily a moral question: In a liberal democracy that is rooted in the belief that all human beings deserve and should be accorded equal respect and dignity, we need effective court systems that are genuinely accessible to all. However, he also notes that a digital court system could solve disputes quicker, to a higher standard and at a reduced cost to the taxpayers.
Asynchronous and online
Susskind is a self-proclaimed futurist but his solutions are not really radical. He admits that we are not ready for AI-judges and mainly proposes that we use asynchronous online court platforms instead of synchronous physical courtrooms. Then proceedings could be via video, hearings could be virtual. They could use technologies such as apps, video-calling, live-chat and other intuitive jargon-free systems. He also admits that the main focus for online courts should be civil disputes of low value so they start with the straightforward issues and then moves on for challenging tasks later.
However, Susskind also proposes a more extended version of the online court. The idea here is that digital tools based on modern design thinking principles could guide users to complete their own court forms, formulate arguments, assemble evidence or even offer non-judicial settlement advice - all stuff that could make the court system more efficient and the user more independent while all authoritative directions or decisions are still made by human beings.
The case against online courts
Despite the cautiousness of this revolution, Susskind anticipates both outrage and scepticism from the traditional parts of the legal industry. In fact, we spend a whole chapter going trough various weak points and criticism of online courts. Because why would you digitise something as important as the legal system when the history of public digitisation is so full of fuckups. When the legal procedure is so complex that lawyers train their whole life to learn the methods of courts and the art of persuasion? When people seem to want justice with a human face instead of a new economy class justice system? Or what if a more accessible legal system is encouraging litigiousness which would lead to more court activity and a culture that incites to greater combat?
Susskind is carefull to go through every single argument but his main cases against his conservative counterparts is that they suffer som a technological myopia that makes then unable to anticipate that tomorrows systems will be vastly more capable than those of today, as well as a cynical protectionism and an “irrational rejectionism” which he defines as a dogmatic dismissal of a technology of which the critic has no personal or direct experience. Susskind admits that online courts could reduce the number of court lawyers. However, the court systems should be driven by the needs of society and its citizens rather than the prejudices of the current providers.
It’s the outcome, stupid!
What many people working with traditional legal services fail to see is what Susskind calls outcome-thinking. People don’t want neurosergeons. They want health. But to some very particular problems neurosergeons are the best currently the best solutions. In 50 years, we might think it primitive to cut in peoples brains. We might be using nano-bots working from within or something even more drastic. That is outcome-thinking. People don’t want soliders. They want security. They don’t want records. They want music. What it means for lawyers is that people don’t really want courts, judges and lawyers. They want their disputes resolved fairly. What many fail to see is that there is no intrinsically valuable in having a legal advisor in the current format. The lawyer has no value in itself.
If online courts are as easy to use as Amazon and affordable to the overwhelming majority, then such a delivery model of court systems is preferred to litigants compared to the broken model of today.