This week saw more documents sweep past us in the continuing avalanche of reports and initiatives under the rubric of ‘The future of legal services’ - or, more accurately, ‘How legal technology will save justice’.
The two particular reports which gained attention this week were: one from a UN-supported group of countries working at a global level for peace and justice, and the other from our own Ministry of Justice. Each covered several areas, but I want to focus on their legal tech goals.
In its view, legal tech is one of our saviours: ‘Technology has the promise to revolutionize the legal industry at large, and to narrow – if not erase – the justice gap.’ Erase – I like that. It goes on to rehearse the various kinds of legal tech which are about to save us, which have been cited in many other reports.
The Ministry of Justice document, on the other hand, is the long-awaited outcome of the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. It is called ‘Legal Support: The Way Ahead; An action plan to deliver better support to people experiencing legal problems’. Obviously it focuses mainly on legal aid, and you can read more about it here.
But once again, the government puts its faith in technology riding to our rescue. New resources are modest, but the aim is ‘to ensure that the UK can become a global beacon for new and innovative technologies supporting people [to] access justice’.
I am perfectly aware of the benefits that technology can bring to our sector, and have trumpeted them myself. Technology in general has brought incredible advances in medicine, communications and information, among other areas. But, despite its undoubted blessings, we are informed daily of a growing clash between the onward drive of our saviour, and the social damage it causes. The argument I am about to describe may be at the level of trends and generalities, and thus not apply to specfic programs or developments, but should nevertheless worry us.
As a sample: innovative technology continues to ride roughshod over regulation and taxation, and has coalesced into a handful of giants who own our data and spy on us; it has fragmented us into virtual, shouty communities where we mob each other for not agreeing with a set of views; it has enslaved us into beings who have to be available 24/7, even when on holiday; it causes great stress to individuals, particularly to young people unable to cope with its bullying and its availability of every image and thought imaginable.
Go into any work-place and everyone is staring at a screen, through which every activity now takes place: shopping, banking, dating, news, social contacts, whatever. Go into any café or restaurant, and even couples or families who have gone out together are staring at their individual phones or tablets. They even stare at them while walking in the streets or driving a car.
What has this to do with legal technology? Justice is a community activity. That is where it derives its strength and legitimacy. England and Wales is justly proud of its tradition of community involvement in justice – from Citizens Advice Bureaux where lay volunteers give preliminary advice on a range of complex legal problems, to lay involvement in the magistracy and on juries. Our courts are open to the public to witness, and to journalists to report on. Real people meet in real time to discuss and settle disputes openly, with rational discussion and available experts.
More than that, our common law system is based not so much on impersonal principles but on precedents involving the actual activities of other human beings. And, most importantly, it is an activity regulated by elected and accountable governments.
Technology, as a general rule, goes in the opposite direction. It atomises and isolates. If it creates communities, they are virtual and unregulated, and of like-minded individuals. It strips human beings of knowledge acquired through reading and experience, because everything can now be discovered in a disposable way for a second at the click of a mouse, with no need to retain it. It is not usually a public transaction, in an open community, subject to rules dictated by an elected legislature, but a private transaction run by a private company which is not regulated.
I am cautious of the ability to harness it, given its record so far of running free of any control.
It is for these reasons that I think we need to think hard and deep about the onward stampede into the utopia of legal technology, at the same time as we are discovering technology’s steep social costs.