Virtual Justice

Back in the days when I was practicing law, including client counseling and courtroom litigation, I sometimes wondered whether a clever computer could do it better. I wasn’t so much thinking about a computer replacing me, mind you. I was thinking more along the lines of a program that could provide litigants with an instant resolution to their problems, without the months of delay and messiness that always attended civil litigation.

Here’s how I thought it might work.

When attorneys research statutes and precedents that might be relevant to a given set of facts, they are really just engaging in a sophisticated game of word searching. The plaintiff’s attorney is looking for laws that will persuade a judge that the plaintiff deserves an award of money or some other satisfaction. Meanwhile, the defense counsel is searching for laws that point in the opposite direction, given the same set of facts. In almost every case, both attorneys are able to find arguments that sound reasonable, even though their reasoning is contradictory.

But what if a computer could be programmed to sift through the facts, examine applicable laws, and offer an unbiased legal opinion?

Sound far-fetched?

I thought so at the time. But now computers are driving cars, answering my questions using voice recognition technology, and even translating foreign languages into English. Are we so sure they’re incapable of sifting through legal precedents to arrive at a wise and just resolution of a dispute?

I’m assuming at this point that, despite my assurances to the contrary, most of you would feel a bit squeamish about assigning your legal future to a passionless programmer.  Just like most of you are probably not quite ready to let your car drive you to your next destination without at least one human hand on the wheel.

Yet lots of people were afraid to fly in airplanes when they were novelties. Even elevators and escalators are a bit disorienting to children taking their first ride.

I prefer to see the advantages rather than the risks. I start by observing that a good computer program would be placing the law above the personality, social status, or economic power of the litigants, meaning that true justice might actually have a chance. The cost of such a system would be much less, but only if we could find a way of deciding what “facts” were relevant to tell the computer in the first place. Lawyers do, after all, like to spin things in their clients’ direction. Sometimes the devil is in the details.

We might still reserve the right to appeal to a human judge. But I’m sensing the day might be coming when at least small claims could be handled via parties agreeing to submit machine-readable forms to a computer, which would then issue a verdict instantaneously.

I’m ready to start working out the kinks.