Court action is an infamously long, tedious and expensive process. But could these procedures change? In his book Online Courts and the Future of Justice, Richard Susskind poses a solution: transforming the legal system to hold online virtual courts, where evidence is submitted and judges decide rulings through an internet-based platform. This is an exciting concept that could make legal proceedings less intimidating and would revolutionise the current court system by making it quicker to arrive at outcomes and allowing easy access remotely.
This book is an in-depth analysis of online dispute resolution, the current legal system and the possibilities of future legal technologies. It provides an explanation of where the courts are failing at the moment and why – “a system whose foundations lie in a print based world… will soon be out of step with the daily lives of citizens of a digital society.”
The overall argument is clear: technology is ever-developing and the legal system would be disadvantaged if it didn’t adapt accordingly. Not only is a technologically advanced legal system advantageous for legal professionals (since it would streamline proceedings), it is most importantly advantageous for users of the court system, as it would dramatically improve access to legal aid. Susskind explains that “most people sit somewhere on a spectrum from feeling consciously alienated from the law to muddling through unconsciously,” and that even “judges and professional litigators will strongly discourage friends and families from becoming embroiled in litigation.”
The main issue facing litigation today is that it’s difficult to understand how legal proceedings work, it’s expensive, and is difficult to use. How, then, does the legal profession change to make it easier for people to access court services?
The possible solution: online courts. Susskind suggests that the online court will consist of three main sections. To begin with, an online evaluation will stop unnecessary legal action for civil cases, such as divorce. Secondly, an online facilitation or dispute containment will take place, for which a partially legally trained case worker would use information provided to the online platform to resolve disputes and prevent them from escalating to court. This could be useful in settling financial cases. The final stage is online judging, which is the most exciting and arguably most important part of the online courts. Judges may work completely online (with no face-to-face interaction) to review all documentation submitted and announce a decision, all via an online platform. This stage could also be a video hearing. The exact format will depend strongly on the technology available. In today’s technological environment, this would be akin to a Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting. In 20 years, however, it could employ virtual reality, allowing people to feel like they’re in a court when in reality they’re sitting at their dining table.
Susskind explains that online courts are a concept. The technology could theoretically be developed, but there is much opposition to the idea. From his experience, he finds that “when confronted by the idea of online courts they [professionals] swiftly isolate the shortcomings both of online judging and of extended courts and seek to show how they fall short of some idealized, perfect model of the court system.”
It’s clear, then, that a lot of legal professionals are diametrically opposed to a technological revolution within the courts. Could this be because they don’t believe the current technology would be able to do their job as well as they can? Susskind believes that they fail to assess how fast technology is developing, which he describes as technical myopia, “denying the future potential of these systems on the basis of current technologies.”
Towards the end of the book, Susskind summarises what he feels will be the most relevant pieces of technology for online courts. These include telepresence and augmented reality, which push the boundaries of virtual reality. He also tentatively mentions the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in developing computer judges and legal prediction devices. AI works by learning from data. An AI judge would be fed information from previous court cases and then analyse the proceedings, becoming better at making “correct” decisions as it learns more. A legal prediction device would, in effect, be an early version of a computer judge, working in a similar way but not producing a final judgement for use in courts. As an extreme example, for a lawyer representing a party who has been charged with murder, the legal prediction device would take all relevant information and suggest whether the person is likely to be found guilty or innocent.
Despite Susskind’s best efforts to define and explain certain terms, this book is mostly unsuitable for non-lawyers. However, for legal professionals, I feel this may be an important read. The concepts covered are fascinating and, although it is a little repetitive, it could provide some motivation for change for sceptics of a technological revolution within the courts. For someone with legal knowledge, the first two sections reiterate what a lot of professionals may already know, touching on the issues with the current legal system and why they need to be improved. Susskind provides alternate context for many of these concepts, presenting how a change may benefit all parties involved.
As an introduction to justice and a thorough and balanced examination of online courts, Online Courts and the Future of Justice delivers.
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