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Article Article April 14th, 2017

Courting change: the verdict on AI and the courts

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AI is improving the delivery of legal services and can also improve how courts operate

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AI systems can analyse a case, apply the law and evaluate possible resolutions

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Quality of leadership will determine which courts capitalise on the opportunities AI presents

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We all know that technology is transforming organisations and industries in significant ways - and the judiciary is no exception. While there is still progress to be made on digitisation, there is another area of innovation that the courts should be interested in, which is the development of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is already improving the way that many services, including medical and legal services, are being delivered, and there is also potential for it to improve the way the courts operate, especially by supporting the work of judges. But while it could very beneficial, it will also be very challenging to deploy.

The dawn of digital disruption in courts

Like many companies and organisations, courts are being transformed by digitisation. Judiciaries around the world are moving from paper-based to electronic and online systems. Courts are increasingly allowing documents to be filed and accessed electronically, and cases to be initiated and managed online. Videoconferencing technology enables judges, parties and witnesses to participate in proceedings virtually. Courts in the UK and Canada have gone even further and are allowing small civil claims to be resolved online.

These initiatives are making it easier for users to engage with the judiciary, reducing the workload of court administrators and reaping significant cost savings for the system. However, the digitisation journey is still a work in progress, and more needs to be done.

The next major wave of change could come from AI and allied technologies in supporting and improving judicial decision-making. In this context, AI means machines that can do more than follow very specific instructions, performing tasks that formerly depended on human reasoning. These machines can identify patterns, evaluate data, and learn from new information.

AI is starting to have an impact on many industries in powerful and effective ways. Last year, IBM's Watson - an AI computer system - helped diagnose and recommend treatment for leukaemia in a patient whose case had been baffling doctors for months. The machine studied the patient's medical information and, in ten minutes, was able to cross-reference her condition against 20 million oncology records.

And in legal services, time-consuming and routine tasks can be completed more efficiently using AI than a team of lawyers - and at least as accurately. For example, the investment bank JP Morgan recently launched a program called Contract Intelligence that can scan a contract in seconds and interpret commercial loan agreements. It is expected to replace 360,000 hours of work by lawyers and loan officers each year.

How AI can help the courts system

As these examples show, the application of AI in law has the potential to grow quickly. For instance, AI systems could support judicial decision-making by acting as “intelligent assistants” to judges, in the same way that AI is already helping doctors to read scans, diagnose conditions and recommend treatments more accurately.

At a basic level, AI can sift through vast volumes of information, identify patterns that humans often miss, and present relevant findings to assist with legal research and analysis - similar to the Ross Intelligence technology being used by law firms.

At more advanced levels, AI systems can analyse a case, apply the law and evaluate possible resolutions. In cases where the facts are undisputed, the law is clear, and well-established precedents exist, AI software could diagnose the situation and produce a draft judgment for the judge to review. This could be valuable in routine civil matters. Judges would intervene as the ultimate arbiter only when the final or hard decisions needed to be made, freeing up their time for more complex or urgent cases.

Robots have not replaced doctors, and I don't believe that robots will replace judges. Judges will continue to have control over the court's final decision on each case. However, the combination of their own legal expertise and a computer's ability to process and analyse information can enable judges to make better decisions.

Lessons of leadership

So, which courts will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that AI presents? The most influential factor will be the quality of leadership. Successful leadership of change requires the ability to unite people behind a vision and to foster a culture of openness to change throughout the organisation.

But I know from my work in courts that they can be hard places to transform. The burning platform that drives most commercial organisations to adopt radical change, even if it challenges their traditional ways of working, is competition. Courts, however, are not subject to the same level of competition as the private sector, and therefore do not have this as a burning platform.

Courts have an additional challenge that can make implementing change harder for them than for many parts of the public sector. Their hierarchical structure is different, with the chief justice, judge or magistrate being more of a first among equals, with less formal authority over their fellow judges than most public sector leaders tend to have.

But this only makes the quality of leadership even more important in determining which courts are able to harness the potential of technology and which get left behind. Leadership in times of change requires a greater emphasis on vision, the ability to bring everyone on the journey, and the ability to adapt to new opportunities whenever roadblocks or openings arise.

What's next?

New technology - including AI - presents great opportunities to improve our courts. We need to take the time to understand and embrace it. Court leaders, and their successors, will determine how well that change is managed.

Last year, Justice Nettle, a judge in the Australian High Court, urged: “As the custodians of the law, we not only have a responsibility to be at the forefront in the innovation and application of […] new technology but we also have reason to be excited about the benefits which it is likely to yield.”

The question now is which courts will take up that challenge.


The Centre for Public Impact is investigating the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) can improve outcomes for citizens. 

Are you working in government and interested in how AI applies to your practice? Or are you are an AI practitioner who thinks your tools can have an application in government? If so, please get in touch. 



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Written by:

Larry Kamener Chair of the Centre for Public Impact
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