13:11, December 03 256 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-03 13:11:07
Online pleas and AI for judges: minister sets out UK law reform plans

Court cases conducted by email, more pleas made online and judges helped by artificial intelligence are likely to feature in the next stage of digital law reform, the justice minister Lucy Frazer has revealed.

In an interview with the Guardian at the start of an international conference on legal technology, the politician responsible for the Ministry of Justice’s £1.2bn modernisation programme said that, as with online dating, people would soon get accustomed to new processes.

Earlier, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, told the meeting that he welcomed the idea of using smartphones to communicate with courts. “Why not?” he asked, adding that “justice in the palm of your hands” was an improvement.

Frazer , who became an MP in 2015was previously a barrister who made QC at the relatively young age of 40 after specialising in commercial cases. This year she was promoted to the Ministry of Justice, where her brief includes digital justice, court closures and legal aid.

Divorce and probate applications have recently been offered online. “We have seen a higher take-up than anticipated,” Frazer said. “I’m confident that people will embrace [digital justice].”

There have been more than 20,000 online applications for divorce since the service began in May this year. The rejection rate for filing errors is said to have fallen from 40% on old paper applications to 0.4% on digital applications. The online probate service has already received 6,400 applications even though it has not been officially launched.

An online appeals service for people disputing social security and children support payments has reduced response times by more than a third, the MoJ says.

“We want to be in a position where the judge can liaise with an applicant through emails,” Frazer said. Known as “asynchronous” hearings in the jargon of online justice, it allows judges to accumulate evidence as soon as possible as claimants send it in, without requiring everyone to be in court at the same time.

More people are likely to get the chance to plead to criminal offences online. The scheme is currently restricted to low-level offences such as travelling on trains without a ticket. An expanded version is likely to be included in the next round of legislation, Frazer confirmed.

Remote video hearings are becoming more widespread in civil and criminal justice. Some criminal lawyers fear it makes it more difficult to conduct confidential consultations with clients.

Frazer pledged that if justice went online it would remain transparent and open to reporting and the public. However, she could not promise there would be no more court closures. More than 250 have shut in England and Wales since 2010. Proceeds from their sale fund the court modernisation programme.

“In 2016/17, 41% of courts were used at half their available capacity. We need to ask ourselves how best to spend the money. Is it by putting in new roofs and heating or via other ways of accessing justice?” Frazer said. An MoJ consultation on future closures will report soon.

Addressing the conference earlier, Burnett said: “Look at the dispute resolution system operated by eBay dealing with 60m complaints a year. Quick, inexpensive and effective for those who use it. We should not be frightened by learning from them.

“Greater consideration will be given about the use of artificial intelligence in the judicial process … It may be able to give indicative decisions and may be able to facilitate settlement of disputes. No one is suggesting it could [replace] all judicial functions.”