Simultaneous translation by computers will put courtroom interpreters out of a job ‘within a few years’ the lord chief justice has said in an upbeat assessment on the potential of technology. Delivering the Sir Henry Brooke Annual Lecture on ‘the age of reform’ Lord Burnett of Maldon described artificial intelligence as the 'transformative technology of our age’ which would drive change in the justice system long after the current controversial reform programme ends in five years. 

'Modernisation will not stop in 2023,’ Burnett said, describing it as 'a continuing process’ which will inevitably involve artificial intelligence predicting the outcome of disputes - 'one of the most exciting developments of the age'.

Burnett also gave an upbeat assessment of progress in the modernisation programme, which he said was a long overdue effort to replace systems that 'more obviously belong in the Science Museum'. This includes the potential of the new 'Common Platform' system to 'squeeze most paper out of the criminal justice system altogether'. It would build on the success of the Crown court Digital Case System which has avoided the need to print more than 40 million pieces of paper over the past two years. 

However he was speaking just a day after the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service told MPs that the Common Platform project was running late. In evidence to the House of Commons public accounts committee, Susan Acland-Hood said: ‘There are still some parts of this programme that I am worried about and that are running behind where I would like them to be... The critical ones for me are some elements of the crime programme - the Common Platform - that were running behind. The Common Platform started life before the rest of HMCTS reform and has been running slower than we want for some time.’

In his lecture, Burnett took aim at critics of the reform programme, who he accused of 'misunderstanding what is envisaged and then subjecting the resulting Aunt Sally to attack'.

Concerns about 'digital exclusion' and threats to the diginity of the justice system are overblown, he said. 'There are no plans to do away with the use of paper in the courts and tribunals for those who genuinely cannot make use of technology or get help to do so.'

He blamed much of the controversy on previous administrations' failures to grasp technology. 'After so long a period of stasis, when finally - as we are now doing - modernisation occurs one is faced with two problems: first, modernisation looks more radical than it is because of the sharper distinction between what it will introduce and what it will replace; and, secondly, it is likely to be more expensive than it would have been if it had started earlier.'

However, he predicted that the result 'will be a more efficient and user-friendly justice system in all its areas of activity coupled with a significant widening of access to justice'.