We spoke to Professor Richard Susskind and Nigel Pascoe QC about online courts

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By Katie King on

What does it all mean for aspiring lawyers?


Not long ago, the idea of new technology ‘taking over’ the justice system would have been laughed at and shrugged off as nonsense.

Unsurprisingly, one of the lone voices to have been suggesting for several years now that this could actually happen, law tech expert Professor Richard Susskind, has faced plenty of scepticism, with top columnist QC David Pannick among those to have questioned his ideas.

But as technology maintains — and even increases — its stronghold on modern day Britain, people are starting to worry about how the legal profession will be affected. Susskind is being proved right.

While research has suggested solicitors and barristers are among the least likely to be replaced by robots, the profession is beginning to come to terms with the fact it will have to accept and work with technological developments, rather than resist them.

One such development is the introduction of online courts.

It’s an idea that’s been floating around since the end of last year, when Lord Justice Briggs released an interim report recommending their development.

But tied up with Briggs’ desire to detach justice from the courtroom is his desire to detach justice from lawyers. His goal, he said at the time, was:

[T]o use modern IT to create for the first time a court which will enable civil disputes of modest value and complexity to be justly resolved without the incurring of the disproportionate cost of legal representation (emphasis added).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the profession’s knee-jerk reaction to the recommendation was to run away screaming. Both solicitors and barristers were quick to express their concerns — a flavour of which has been shared with Legal Cheek by Pump Court Chambers barrister Nigel Pascoe QC, who told us:

[A]ny reforms which excluded lawyers entirely would be a recipe for disaster. Only a trained lawyer can pick up the irregularity which points to a point of law. We do not contemplate letting hospital administrative staff try their hand at minor surgery and nor should non lawyers be allowed to do likewise.

Pascoe and others will be pleased to know that, in his more recent report, deputy head of civil justice Briggs moved away slightly from his previous, strong-willed commitment to lawyerless courts. Instead, he advocated an online civil justice system “with minimal assistance” from lawyers, one in which parties can recover a limited amount of legal costs.

A step back, yes, but this recommendation still doesn’t accord with Pascoe’s vision for a justice system that is “under the direct supervision at all times of trained lawyers”, a status quo he describes as “non-negotiable”.

Nor has Briggs’ change in position done much to ease aspiring lawyers’ concerns because they remain most likely to be hit hardest by the change. Junior solicitors and barristers rely on low-value work to shape their professional development, and aspiring lawyers want answers about what this means for them.

If anyone has those answers, it’s Susskind.

An academic, author, speaker and ‘futurologist’, Susskind has long been of the view that legal work will gradually dry up in deference to technology. In his 2008 publication The End of Lawyers?, he foresaw:

[A] future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today, and, in some walks of life, will have no visibility at all.

It’s a terrifying prospect for those wanting to make it into the profession, but Susskind — chair of the ODR Advisory Group of the Civil Justice Council — remains optimistic. He tells Legal Cheek:

The entrepreneurial and innovative young lawyer should see opportunity and not calamity here. New roles will emerge — online pleading will be a new speciality, virtual appearance in courts will require a different set of skills, there will be scope for setting up private online platforms for resolving specialist disputes, and the court system will be recruiting teams of legal case officers, as discussed by Lord Justice Briggs.

Exciting opportunities may lie ahead, but young lawyers need to take this reassurance with a pinch of realism. Susskind adds:

It’s early days for online courts. But it’s reasonable for tomorrow’s litigators to expect that, over the next ten years or so, there will be less need for lawyers’ involvement in the resolution of low value claims.

That said:

[I]t’s likely that big ticket disputes will still be heard in traditional courts and so the large scale dispute work for major law firms and top sets of chambers will be less affected.

Susskind was also on hand to offer an insight into the practicalities of how these online courts will work. Will the hearing be coordinated over text, a bit like Facebook messenger, or will it involve video calling, more like Skype? According to Susskind:

There is a difference between, wait for it, a virtual court and an online court. The former allows participants to attend an actual hearing by some kind of video link. The latter, as my group and Briggs LJ envisage, is largely a process of submissions and arguments by documents and attachments, with occasional teleconferencing and video conferencing in support — judges and case officers handling cases largely on the papers alone and so with no oral hearings.

So despite all the hype about tech revolutionising society, the reality of online courts looks set to be a good deal more down to earth than many imagine. But it’s often those small, more easily actionable changes that have the biggest effect — even if speculating about robot lawyers is more fun.