Courts already using automated decision-making, Birss reveals

Algorithm-based digital decision making is already working behind the scenes in the justice system, the deputy head of civil justice has revealed. In an upbeat speech last month, Lord Justice Birss said that algorithm-based decision making – controversial because of the possibility of built-in bias – is already solving a problem at the online money claims service. 

It was one of three examples of advanced technology in the justice system mentioned by the lord justice, illustrating science fiction author William Gibson’s phrase ‘the future is here – but not evenly distributed’. A digital justice system ‘already exists to a significant extent’, Birss told King’s College London Law School. 

Lord Justice Colin Birss

In the civil money claims system, he said, an algorithmic formula is applied where defendants accept a debt but ask for time to pay. The old paper based formula for calculating staged payments ‘was not really secret but nor was it published in any clear way’, the judge said. As a result, two different formulae were used in different parts of the court system. 

‘The differences were small but they did exist,’ Birss said. ‘In designing this bit of the online system the relevant members of the rule committee decided which formula to use as being the appropriate one, and made provision in the rules that the formula would be applied by the computer automatically.’ As before, it is open to judicial override. However, the judge said, ‘As far as I know this is caused no difficulty of any sort and attracted very little comment.’

Other unsung applications of advanced technology include the purely digital service of documents – apart from ‘some initial minor teething troubles of a technical nature’ this has ‘worked extremely well’ – and the work allocation tool in the county court. 

Looking to the future, Birss said that ‘AI used properly has the potential to enhance the work of lawyers and judges enormously.’