The Latest Must-Read Book on A2J

March 11, 2020 by Colin Rule

Online Courts and the Future of Justice

The Latest Must-Read Book on A2J

Courts across the United States look to Tyler Technologies to help navigate how technology will transform and improve the justice system over the coming decades. A new book by Professor Richard Susskind, the most influential legal technology thinker in the United Kingdom, maps out the direction of the trends in technology and society that will lead us to the creation of fully online courts.

Susskind’s new book, Online Courts and the Future of Justice (Oxford University Press, 2019), joins his prior works¹ that sketch out a vision for online courts in an accessible, enjoyable way.

The book contains four key sections:

  1. Courts and Justice
    Includes why courts matter, access to justice, and tackling injustice.
  2. Are Courts a Service or a Place?
    Includes a vision for online courts, online judging, and assisting arguments.
  3. The Case Against Online Courts
    Anticipates and addresses critics’ objections.
  4. The Future
    Provides an overview of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and computer judges.

Opportunity for Change

From the outset, Susskind makes clear his focus is on civil dispute resolution, “legal disagreements that arise when a party who has suffered a loss seeks a remedy from another.” He looks back at why courts are important from both constitutional and jurisprudential perspectives, then lays out the reasons for change now and how recent technology advances create opportunity for such change. Our notions of interpersonal interaction, for example, are evolving. We’ve gone from physical to virtual to online, and a future justice system has potential to blend them all together to better meet the litigants’ needs.

An overview of the problems courts face today shows that improved access to justice includes making processes quicker, cheaper, and more convenient. Any move toward online courts must ensure that the justice system remains “accessible, transparent, sufficiently resourced, and appropriately balanced.” Only systems that embody these principles are worthy of being backed by the coercive power of the state, online or offline.

A Vison's Evolution

Susskind walks through the development of his vision for online courts, describing several initiatives that provided inspiration, such as eBay's online dispute resolution processes, British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, and the U.K.’s financial ombudsman service. Susskind chronicles his interesting work leading a key task force under the U.K. Civil Justice Council that recommended the creation of a new internet-based court service for low value civil disputes called Her Majesty's Online Court. The evolution of this vision since publication is an instructive example of a movement’s momentum.

Susskind is at his most persuasive when he turns to the question of online judging. It is obvious he has spent a lot of time debating this subject with judges, because his writing on this topic is clear and well-reasoned. Like any good lawyer, Susskind anticipates the objections of his critics. He puts forward the best version of their concerns (e.g., second-class justice, transparency, fairness, bias, increased litigiousness) and addresses each in turn. He makes clear that though his vision for online courts may have shortcomings and risks, it is still an improvement over the existing options available for most lower value civil disputes.

The Human Component

One of the book’s strongest sections deals with the importance of the human face of justice, and how technology may lead us to overlook human psychology in the justice process. Susskind speaks frankly about how technology may reinforce social inequity and contribute to digital exclusion. These are lessons we must keep front of mind as we build and develop online courts.

Susskind acknowledges past failures in technology projects as well, including the disastrous California Case Management System, whose costs ballooned to almost 2 billion dollars before the project was shelved in 2012. Citing these failures, he highlights the importance of not rushing into changes. We need to test and learn with pilot experiments to get systems right before we deploy them widely.

Future Technologies

He then looks to the horizon at what future technologies may eventually enter the equation including artificial intelligence, telepresence, augmented reality, virtual reality, and advanced online dispute resolution. There is so much happening in the world of AI these days that it could fill a book (or several) on its own, but Susskind clearly lays out the contours of AI as they are currently understood and explores how these approaches could eventually lead us toward a digital judge.

At the end, Susskind reminds us that more than 54% of human beings on the planet are deprived of the “protections, entitlements, and benefits that the law can and should afford.” As our world globalizes, our joint challenge will be to ensure every human’s right to respect and dignity is enshrined in and enforceable by the law. To achieve this, he challenges us to leverage the internet and technology to “develop and make available a standard, adaptable, global platform for online courts that can be replicated around the world.” As the leading court technology provider in the United States, I believe Tyler will lead that charge.

Susskind muses what his new granddaughter, Rosa, will think about the book when she turns 21 in 2039. Will “Rosa will want to know, two decades hence, why her grandfather felt the need to waste his time writing a book that argued for the glaringly obvious – that in a digital society, it makes much sense for much of the work to of courts to be conducted online”? From Rosa’s future perspective, it may seem obvious that online courts were inevitable. But from our current perspective, this book is an important step toward making that future become a reality.

¹The Future of Law (1996), The End of Lawyers? (2008), Tomorrow's Lawyers (second edition, 2017).

Colin Rule was recently awarded the Frank Sanders Award by the American Bar Association. This post is part of a series on ODR by Rule, vice president, Online Dispute Resolution and co-founder of Modria. Check this space on the second Wednesday of each month for more.

Read his earlier articles here.

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