Recently, I watched a scene from another time in history, a set piled high with paper, where professionals in business suits scurried through rooms with dollies stacked with boxes of paper, all stamped, signed, and distributed in huge amounts of copies. Everything was tabbed and filed beyond all comprehensibility, people were flipping madly through binders in a race against time, no one agreed on any of the facts or could find any, and the end result was a mop of perspiration and a guess at the facts in most cases. Those who might know the real answers were chained behind a procedural wall of silence, though they were only two feet away. All gathering and interpretation of data was left to the officials, who lumbered and puffed like prehistoric mainframes, invariably coming up with incorrect data, incorrect logic, and incorrect answers, while telling each other that the actual facts did not matter that much. It was only the very course of people’s lives that were being decided.
“My god,” I said. “Is that really Canada’s legal system? Ought it not to be automated?”
“Do you really think,” said Mr. Counsel with a sneer, “That there is Artificial Intelligence that advanced?”
“Do you really think,” I did not reply, “That your job is actually complex?”
It is not. Even in Canada’s slightly more convoluted system of case law, the relevant cases and the rankings of their relevance (jurisdiction, court etc.,) are easily codified. In the end, it is just mountains of data, in a completely unrealistic volume for a person (especially one billed at legal rates) to go through, but child’s play if it were automated.
What makes it seem like more than data is the culture of the court, the omnipotent judge who has the power he ought not, to deliver verdicts at odds with the law, the bowing and scraping from all others in the court, who never tell the judge, “You are wrong,” even when it is obviously and absolutely the case. This culture feels, as all others did before them, that its job is too special to be performed by mere machines. I recall facing a department full of wide eyed and shrill accountants, telling me that I had to make the computer add each column of numbers twice, it was the law, and everyone knows, computers make mistakes all the time. If accountants can change, the legal system can change, and it is decades late.
Of all the pieces of a democracy, surely the most important for all of the citizens to be able to access and understand is the law. How can we possibly demand obedience to a law if it is not understood? When I suggested a system where any person could type in the particulars of their case and receive a firm answer of what the verdict would be, my lawyer friend said that would encourage people to find loopholes they could sneak through. I said that was called debugging, and it happens now in any case, only in a far more ponderous fashion. I can’t say I convinced him at all.
What I saw was a system where a person, obese, unattractive, asthmatic, with eczema, and slow speech, and slow logic, could lose a case with disastrous results, even when their case would indicate otherwise. A system where what the justice ate for breakfast, how they viewed the counsel hired by each side, and whether forms were filed in the tortuous and expensive manner required could outweigh the facts. A system where incompetent counsel (which seem far more prevalent than the other kind) can present a case incorrectly and receive an incorrect verdict for their client. A system which can require years of waiting, but then is over far too quickly to add evidence or adjust to new information. A system which is laborious, stressful, takes far too long, and provides far too many incorrect verdicts.
What is required is a system where each side inputs the factual data of the case, has the data reviewed for quality by an independent party, and receives an immediate verdict. The verdict needs to come from the law, not from a person who is offering an opinion, who may be influenced by whether the person standing in front of him looks like Karla Homolka or Clifford Olsen, or any other irrelevant data. The verdict needs to come from the law, because it is the law that is to be agreed on by all people of Canada, not the opinion of one person, or one jury, however qualified.
There have been baby steps made in Canada. There is a database of legal cases, and the actual laws are available online. A person who knows what they are doing can look up the law, sort through thousands of possibly relevant cases and find the best ones. In the case of family law, there is quite a bit of online help for separation agreements and child support guidelines. These steps help, but not if there is absolutely no guarantee that the court is going to come to the conclusion the data and the law suggests. Under the current system, it is always worth going to court just in case, if you are hoping for a better decision, you just might get one. Conversely, it is always terrifying going to court if there is personal risk, even if you ought to be safe, you may not be. That is a ridiculous situation, barring errors in data or interpretation of the law, the only avenue for a change of verdict ought to be the court of appeal, where a person can go to argue that a law ought to be changed.
In the end, I printed the same answer twice for the accounting staff. They happily checked the numbers every day for years, to make sure that they balanced. A period of transition here can include legal staff who help clients collate and organize their data for the system, but ideally, the only legal counsel should be in a court of appeal, deciding if the current laws are working or not. A predictable and immediate legal system is required by any society that wishes its citizens to feel secure and confident. A system which takes over years of people’s lives, destroys individuals and families, and provides unpredictable results is not acceptable.