The Ministry of Justice should fund tests of online self-service legal advice and ‘shadow’ judgments by artificial intelligence systems - but ensure that the governance of these and other emergent technologies is kept at arm’s length from both civil servants and legal professionals. That is core theme of a landmark study published today by legal reform charity the Centre for Justice Innovation.

Just technology: emergent technologies and the justice system also contains a mixed message for HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the police about public attitudes to innovations such as online courts and automatic facial recognition.

Authors Phil Bowen and Blair Gibbs say their starting point is 'an enthusiasm for the ability of technology to improve a justice system which can seem stuck in a bygone age of posted letters, bullky files and laborious (and often superfluous) in-person appointments.’ Among proposals covering policing, the provision of legal advice and the courts, they recommend that the Ministry of Justice:

‘Explicitly commit itself to investing in the trial of online legal advice services whereby citizens can manage their own legal issues across a range of legal problems.’

‘Trial the “shadow” use of artificial intelligence in key justice decisions such as remand to ascertain whether they more accurately predict better outcomes than human decision makers and publish these results.’

The report also examines public attitudes to innovations such as the analysis of ‘big data’ to prevent and investigate crimes and virtual courts. One finding is likely to be seized on by HMCTS: ‘There is majority public support for the use of an online criminal court process for low level matters resulting in a fine’. According to the centre, 66% of the public support the idea, while only 20% oppose it.

However the report stresses that public enthusiasm for computers replacing police officers, lawyers and judges may be fragile. So-called ‘big data policing’ 'clearly raises questions about citizens’ privacy and their right to have data used only with their consent’. A majority of the public want the police to ask permission before personal data is used to model and prevent crime. ’This has potentially important ramifications for the police’s desire to use more data in policiing,’ it notes.  

An overall theme of the report is the need for independent oversight of new technologies: 'Stimulating this kind of innovation is better left to a specialist arm’s length body, rather than a government department, and whose sole job is to invest in an innovative provision of legal services, especially to those citizens whose need is currenty unmet. This new body can be removed from policy making within the Ministry of Justice, but also set apart from the legal profession and the risks of professional capture.’ 

The authors stress that the report is not concerned with the impact on professions. While predicting ‘considerable’ disruption within the professions, ‘we are interested in the impact of technology on the public and on outcomes’. On this basis, ‘insofar as new and disruptive technologies are shown to work, and can maintain public consent, and so do not serve in any way to undermine the legitimacy of the justice system as a whole, they represent a risk worth taking’.