Digital justice and AI

Speaking at the 150th Anniversary of the Technology and Construction Court earlier this month, Master of the Rolls, the Right Hon. Sir Geoffrey Vos, spoke of the need for the Business and Property Courts to be proactive in digitalising its procedures and embracing AI technologies.

Sir Geoffrey spoke of the current digitalisation project being planned by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service for all “small” Civil, Family and Tribunal cases. While not yet fully developed, it is envisioned that cases falling within this pilot project will be case managed end-to-end via an online platform, with maximum possible use of automation. He predicted that following the development of this online platform and pilot project, a similar digitalisation process would occur in respect of all Civil, Family and Tribunal cases. 

While not currently part of the project, Sir Geoffrey said it was paramount for the Business and Property Courts to be similarly proactive in reforming their procedures for the digital age and embracing AI technologies. Warning that if the Business and Property Courts did lag behind in embracing “digital justice” it may come at the cost of the Courts’ international reputation as both a pioneer and deliverer of high-quality justice. 

During his address he commented on what digitalisation of the Business and Property Courts would look like in practice, the justice system’s use of AI technologies, and the impact digitalisation will have on the type and quantity of disputes before the Courts.

Sir Geoffrey said that the current online filing system should be seen as only the start of the digitilisation process. A digitalised court would allow for “online filing as well as online case management, online orders, online hearing bundles and ultimately online applications and enforcement”.

He emphasised that a digital justice system will need to make maximum use of AI technologies and smart systems. Such technologies, he said, will ultimately reduce costs and delays, making the justice system more efficient and accessible. One of the primary areas Sir Geoffrey foresees AI technologies assisting the dispute resolution process is in the early identification and narrowing of issues between the parties. He also predicts that AI will become increasingly helpful in assisting parties to predict the outcome and risks of litigation.  He warned that a practical approach should be taken to the courts use of AI - while any AI will need to be adopted thoughtfully and safely, safety concerns should not prevent the courts from adopting “demonstrably valuable technology to improve access to justice and to allow dispute resolution to be delivered more quickly and at a proportionate cost”.

More broadly, Sir Geoffrey spoke of a future digital justice system being a funnel comprising of three tiers. At the first tier, a person’s problem will be identified – most likely by systems utilizing AI. At the second tier will be a number of non-court based online dispute resolution portals (he cited the Official Injury Portal and the current Ombudsman portals as trailblazers in this regard). Only if the relevant non-court based dispute resolution portal is unsuccessful in resolving the dispute will litigants (and their lawyers) then be directed to the third tier, the online digital court process.

The Master of the Rolls also explained that as litigants become more digitalised, we can expect that the type of disputes before the courts will change. He posited a number of examples of the new issues and fact patterns courts will be required to grapple with, including determining responsibility for error in the context of automated, rather than human decision-making. While the types of disputes would change, Sir Geoffrey also predicted that digitalisation and automation would ultimately reduce the scope for human error and factual issues between the parties, and therefore the number of disputes. The newly enacted Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023, which provides for bills of lading, bills of exchange and other trade documents to exist in digital form, was cited as an example of simplifying and reducing the scope for error and dispute.

The Courts of England and Wales have always been a leading destination for parties across the globe, even for disputes with no connection to the UK. As part of maintaining its position as a leading international disputes centre, it is clear that the United Kingdom’s justice system will need to embrace and meet the challenges of digitalising and automating its processes. While steps have clearly already been taken to begin this process and there remains uncertainty as to what digitalisation will look like in practice, it will be paramount that the English courts continue to embrace digitalisation and the opportunities that come with it.

View the full speech