Ronan Hynes: Digital justice – the inevitable future?



Ronan Hynes
Ronan Hynes

Ronan Hynes, partner at Sellors, considers how the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the transformation of the justice sector.

COVID-19 has reminded us how globalised the world has become, how interconnected we all are and the role that technology will play in our future. The World Economic Forum in Davos recently told us that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (also known as Industry 4.0) is now well underway and it is estimated by 2022 that 42 per cent of core skills to perform existing jobs will change.

Never before has it been so vital that the legal system move swiftly to embrace technology to keep pace with this change. Richard Susskind, the most cited commentator on the future of legal services, predicts that 2020 will be the decade of tech-led legal change with online courts, artificial intelligence based business and other Industry 4.0 technologies changing the old ways of working. In 1996, he predicted that lawyers in the years to come would converse by email. Deemed heresy at the time, he was ultimately proven correct.

In Ireland, COVID-19 has correctly resulted in the closure of civil, criminal, family and other Courts in all but the most urgent and serious of matters until the current crisis is over. The Four Courts is empty. Provincial courts in cities and small towns across Ireland are closed. Judges are not hearing cases. Lawyers are working remotely. The legal system, as we know it, has virtually ground to a halt.

Is this acceptable or indeed sustainable in the technology-enabled twenty-first century we live in? Do citizens not deserve better to ensure they have access to justice and their legal rights upheld? Can remote working and virtual court hearings provide a more efficient way of delivering justice for clients and citizens?

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in calls by some for a global remote courts initiative. Led by Susskind, Remote Courts Worldwide involves the Society for Computers and Law, the UK LawTech Delivery Panel, and the UK Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. Susskind commented on the initiative that:

“It’s time to come together, globally, to accelerate the introduction of remote hearings by judges. We have no choice. Physical courts are closing … Let’s make it happen. We must seize the moment and come together to accelerate the development of new ways of delivering just outcomes for court users.”

The legal sector is not immune from Industry 4.0 technologies. In many ways, the legal revolution has already started. Some law firms, suppliers and technology companies are using data analytics, machine learning e-discovery, robotic case management systems, artificial intelligence, voice recognition, and more to provide quicker, better, and cheaper outcomes for clients than ever before. The disruption has begun but when will it cross the chasm into the mainstream legal system?

The Irish Courts Service will pilot “virtual courtrooms” from 20 April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis in High Court civil matters, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court hearings. The UK Supreme Court has already moved to video conferencing to hear cases and deliver judgments. Online courts are now a feature in countries like Canada, Australia, China and Singapore. So, the transformation of the legal system, as we know it, has begun.

The ways in which justice will be administered and delivered in the future are likely to be very different to what we know and understand today. Will virtual court hearings and online courts become the norm in Ireland in the future? Will Susskind’s prediction ultimately come through? COVID-19 has turbocharged this inevitable transformation.



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