‘The Forces Of Conservatism In The Law Are Formidable But Not Unstoppable’

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By Richard Susskind on

Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.

In 1981, IBM launched its PC and I was a legal undergraduate at Glasgow University. My gut feeling at the time was that “computing” would have a huge impact on the legal world, writes Professor Richard Susskind. In the spirit of the time, I set about writing a dissertation entitled, “Computers and the Judicial Process”. As I began my research, I was quickly hooked and felt – rightly, in the event – that I had found a field of study and activity that would be central to my career.

I wish I had known just how difficult it would be to bring technology into the court system…

The underlying motivation for those of us who enthuse and effuse about the potential of IT for the courts has been the same for decades – that the labour-intensive, document-intensive, information-intensive, cumbersome, and paper-based systems that dominate court administration should be replaced by automated, streamlined, and largely paper-free sets of systems that would be less costly, less prone to error, and more accessible. In turn, an efficient and well-equipped court system, populated by satisfied lawyers, would result; and this would be a system in which the public would have greater confidence. I have always thought all of this was self-evident.

However, in various fairly formal capacities over the years (for example, as IT Consultant to Lord Woolf in the mid-1990s and as IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice since 1998), I have been heavily involved in numerous attempts to computerize the courts – and, sadly, in England and Wales, little technological progress has been made over the last 20 years.

As I argue in my latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, the lack of progress can be attributed to two main factors: insufficient investment by the Government and the Treasury, who have not considered civil justice to be a priority; and the Ministry of Justice’s poor track record of successfully procuring and delivering large-scale technology projects. There has, incidentally, been no shortage of vision from within the justice system. Over the years, a number of enlightened judges, politicians, and civil servants have expressed bold views of a court and justice system transformed through technology. There has been sufficient vision but insufficient cash and IT capability.

There is little point in life in dwelling on the road not taken…that said, if I had known then what I know now, I would have pushed much, much harder over the years. I would have pressed more forcefully for the modernization of our courts through technology.

I have learned that, if you are in the business of change and you have a point worth making, it must be made many more times than once; that, when obstacles are put up, the best response is to find a new way through rather than to retreat; that the forces of conservatism in the law are formidable but not unstoppable; and that if you want to bring about change, there are limitations to what you can achieve as an external adviser. I have also learned, in the Ministry of Justice in the UK at least, that the support of government ministers is essential to making progress.

Projecting forward, though, I do not expect that lawyers with an interest in IT will look back 30 years from now and agitate over the lack of technological progress. Instead, I predict that the legal system will have been fundamentally and irreversibly changed as a direct result of the introduction of IT. In the intervening period, we will ask ourselves, “is court a service or a place?” We will come to agree that it is a service, and virtual hearings and online dispute resolution will displace much that we do today.

Professor Richard Susskind OBE is President of the Society for Computers and Chair of the Advisory Board at the Oxford Internet Institute. His latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, was published in January 2013 by Oxford University Press.