Public ‘viewing centres’ for watching court proceedings could be a way of preserving open justice as much of the courts system goes online, the judge leading the digital transformation programme said yesterday. Lord Justice Fulford, senior presiding judge, floated the idea in a lecture which included a bullish update on court computerisation – and scepticism about artificial intelligence ever replacing judges. 

Delivering the Draper Memorial Lecture to University of Sussex alumni, Fulford said that over the past 18 months Crown court judges had embraced digital technology in an ‘extraordinary’ transformation. ‘Mostly - nearly entirely - they love it,’ he said. Civil courts and tribunals will follow over the next four years, with the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal as one of the ‘leaders of the pack’. 

Under the £1bn transforming justice programme, many civil and minor criminal matters will be handled entirely online, he said. ‘We are moving to a position where certain cases may never be touched by a human being.’

He acknowledged that entirely digital processes could pose a threat to transparency. ‘Justice must not disappear down an Alice-style rabbit hole,’ he said. To sustain the principle of open justice, ‘we will probably opt for viewing centres in public buildings, where members of the public can see what would be in open court’, he said. However he stressed ‘these are early days and we are looking for imaginative solutions’.

Questioned whether decision-making algorithms in court systems should be based on open source rather than proprietary software, Fulford said: ‘So far that has not been on our agenda – but it will be after this evening.’

And while enthusiastic about the potential of systems such as the Watson supercomputer to assist the judiciary, Fulford stressed that he does not believe that the ‘cyber-judge’ will be reality in the foreseeable future.

‘Substantive decisions will remain firmly in the hands of properly qualified people,’ he said, stressing: ‘There will be no, repeat no, judicial redundancies as a result of these reforms.’