Review

How future lawyers can take advantage of the digital revolution

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Legal Cheek reviews latest book offering from Professor Richard Susskind

Richard Susskind

One of the themes in Professor Richard Susskind’s latest book, Online Courts and the Future of Justice, is that we should transform our court system because it will improve access to justice, and that we should do so even if such transformation will be far from perfect.

Susskind argues for a radical rethink of court systems around the world because it could “help remove all manner of manifest injustices”. But his approach is pragmatic rather than ‘tech-topian’: online courts are a good idea because they are, in practical terms, useful, not because they will, by their very nature, solve the world’s problems. It is a refreshingly realistic viewpoint.

It is also the case that the change Susskind predicates is already happening: that even by the time you have finished reading the book, another example of online dispute resolution will have been launched, perhaps in Singapore, Australia or British Columbia. Even here in decrepit England, the HMCTS Digital Transformation Project is a thing. So in a way, this book, from the profession’s resident futurologist, becomes not so much an argument for change but a neat explainer for change that is already happening.

The vision that Susskind has is that court systems could be — and should be — radically, and digitally, transformed in order to save justice from the costly, complex and outdated service it is now. Starting from the premise that a court doesn’t have to be a physical space, first he suggests that we actually extend the current system by taking it ‘upstream’ so that someone with a problem or issue will enter an online court service right at the outset to work out whether or not they have a legitimate claim and whether that claim has any merit. To be clear, this process would not be fulfilled by a lawyer or even a case officer but would be done using digital pathways. This extended court: “assists users in turning an unstructured grievance into a recognisable, justiciable problem.”

Second, the court system would then contain that potential claim or dispute by offering either case officers or, over time, technology to facilitate its resolution (the success of eBay is cited here: its dispute resolution system resolves 60 million disagreements each year “without third party intervention”). This is not an alternative path but an embedded step in the court system.

Third and finally, if the dispute is not resolved, then it will need a judge. Under Susskind’s vision, this judge does not need to be in a courtroom, the parties don’t need to be present, and there doesn’t need to be a single hearing. This is how we arrive at online judging, where the hearing is “continuous” over a period of time, though we do, for now, still use a human judge.

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Susskind makes it clear that he is focusing primarily on civil disputes not criminal justice, and on the more common low value disputes as opposed to complex, multi-party, multi-jurisdictional commercial cases. But if his vision is limited in one sense, it is also broad in another: he envisages that a blueprint online court system could be adopted globally in other jurisdictions where access to justice is also a significant challenge.

Online Courts, Susskind’s tenth book, which follows on from other prediction-filled publications such as The Future of Law and The End of Lawyers, is, of course, very readable. He interrogates the many issues that online justice raises such as how to ensure there is a distinction between code and law, the role and impact of artificial intelligence, and cites case studies from other countries, including China. He spends more than a quarter of the book pre-empting his critics by debunking the main objections to online courts (some of which, one suspects, are based on actual arguments he has had with individuals that he has worked with in his role as IT advisor to the judiciary).

Perhaps the concept of online courts would be more welcome than it is among the legal community if our current system was not so dire. It is hard to conceptualise a sparkling digital future when you are sitting in a courtroom with a leaking roof and WiFi that doesn’t work. Susskind makes comparisons between a well-funded digital justice system of the future (the HMCTS digital project has £1 billion at its disposal) with the decrepit courtrooms of the present: no wonder then that digital comes out on top. What if we compared what our current system would be like if it was properly invested in versus the online version of that? But Susskind, taking the pragmatic view, would argue that this is a utopian comparison because that is not a real choice anymore.

More than that, Susskind wants us to use this opportunity, this time of flux, to do something very different and potentially radical (always remembering that it doesn’t have to be perfect), that the legal profession and law schools “remain fundamentally 19th and 20th century institutions” which are “out of place and inadequate” in our new century.

There is a warning here too: if lawyers don’t read his book and get interested in, and get involved in, digital justice then they’ll miss that opportunity and they’ll be left behind.

Professor Richard Susskind OBE is the author of ten books about the future. His latest, Online Courts and the Future of Justice, is now available. He wrote his doctorate on AI and law at Oxford University in the mid-80s.

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14 Comments

Anonymous

Yet more barriers between ordinary people and a Judge.

Go read up on how “successful” the entire DWP system is before fantasising about this nonsense.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Spending on “ordinary people” should be thoroughly streamlined as they have no assets and pay a pittance in taxes.

(6)(1)

Ultron J

“There is a warning here too: if lawyers don’t read his book and get interested in, and get involved in, digital justice then they’ll miss that opportunity and they’ll be left behind.”

And here it is – Susskind does very well out of predicting the end of lawyer’s and courts every few years. His predictions are always utterly wrong, but at least they give hacks something to write a few articles about.

No one in industry takes this man seriously. We all have some idea what is happening already, and it certainly isn’t automated courts or abolition of lawyers. All kinds of predictive and machine learning software (as well as plenty of glorified databases) are genuinely changing the way that law works. And t is really very interesting.

So why is Mr Susskind, who is neither a real lawyer nor a real tech expert, constantly predicting all sorts of bonkers sci-fi things that frankly would be surprising if they happened in 100 years, let alone 10? You might recall that 10 years ago he was saying law firms would only be hiring computer programmers by 2020 and no law graduates any more.

There’s genuinely interesting research to be done into regtech, blockchain, smart contracts, machine learning, and how they are already impacting legal practice and compliance now. Especially for big companies. This is not sexy and does not produce stupid headlines however, and so Mr Susskind prefers instead to predict that judges will all be robots by next Thursday.

Mr Susskind does not start with a real understanding of the now, and so cannot possibly predict the future in any meaningful way. And he has demonstrated this repeatedly over decades.

(33)(2)

Realist

His son has profitably jumped on the ‘Legaltech Cassandra bandwagon’ too, so this nonsense will persist.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Cassandra was right, remember.

(1)(0)

Kay

Answer to the headline: by publishing doorstoppers/coffee table books on the subject

(3)(0)

Tech Skeptic

Susskind once again prognosticates, after having completely botched his claims about the end of graduate recruitment in the legal profession and big four.

The sooner this Walter Mitty is seen as nothing more than a laughing stock the better.

(23)(0)

Anon

Can we please stop giving this charlatan the oxygen of publicity?

First him. Now both his sons are making a living out of outlandish tech theories that never come true. It’s far from a noble calling – it verges on dishonest and alarmist.

The no platformers have it right. Ignore them, don’t give them publicity, and they go away.

(14)(0)

Parasite

I would have far more respect for his sons if they wrote books about apoidea, homology models, C-type asteroids, the geology of Châteauroux, endocrine disorders or just about anything else that doesn’t seem to be EXACTLY what their father writes about.

(17)(0)

Lol

Hey atleast Jamie is a practising lawyer. That’s a real path breaker by the standards of that family

(3)(0)

Anon

Quickly realised there was more dollar in the family business though?

(3)(0)

Random passer-by

I don’t now those kids and I’m sure they have had a life of relative privilege compared to me, and done well as a result. However I think you are out of order to bring up his kids here. This has nothing to do with them, this is their father’s views and work not their’s.

Anon

They aren’t kids. They are fully grown men who are accountable for their own actions.

They have followed exactly the same path as their father. It’s fair comment.

Anonymous

If you write 100 wackjob prediction books, one might come good.

(9)(0)

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