From wireless internet in courtrooms to entirely digital court judgments, the future of justice is coming to a case near you.
Times are changing and the justice system is getting dragged along behind, whether it wants to or not. Robot court reporters and courthouse technology upgrades are just the beginning. From digital court to artificial intelligence and borderless jurisdictions, a wild future is quickly approaching. Buckle up!
Massachusetts state officials want to modernize and digitize their court system. To that end, state reps Michael Day (D) and Sheila Harrington (Rep) cosponsored a bill, H 4238, dryly titled “An Act to improve and modernize the information technology systems and capacities of the judiciary,” to do just that. If passed, this bill would authorize the appropriation of $164 million to provide upgrades such as a portal for electronic data storage and access to case information, digital security, and a VOIP phone system, while changing some rules to allow for the court to retain digital copies of some documents instead of the now-mandatory paper version. Their last major tech upgrade, in the 1990s, moved their case information onto an Oracle database. Apparently, wireless internet access is still a wishlist item in Massachusetts courthouses.
Did you know there’s a shortage of court reporters? According to the National Court Reporters Association, the average age of a court reporter is 53. The dwindling supply of certified professionals led a Texas judge to pitch the idea of digital court reporters. Although the point is to use the cyber substitutes when actual humans are not available, automation isn’t risk-free. First, electronic equipment may not record perfect quality audio, causing errors to creep in during transcription, undermining the integrity of court records and leading to expensive appeals. In addition, transcription could be outsourced to third parties who are not certified or even sworn to secrecy. And what if someone forgets to hit the “record” button after a recess? If cheaper digital court reporters catch on, there will be fewer incentives for aspiring reporters to train for a doomed career. How much do we trust the robots?
Digital court has already arrived in China. The first cyber court was launched in Hangzhou in 2017. Now twelve jurisdictions in China use the technology. The court, complete with AI judge, decides cases related to trade disputes, product liability, and copyright infringement. The platform allows litigants to register cases online and receive judgments without having to physically appear in court. The system has proven faster and more streamlined than traditional courts, with clearer documentation, but if digital court reporters are cause for concern, then digital judges may be a bridge too far.
Traditional courts are ripe for innovation that sidesteps the more costly and geographically limited aspects of the justice system. Enter Aragon Court, a blockchain-based platform which, like arbitration or mediation, takes some of the pressure off of both the overburdened system and the litigants involved. Aragon is a digital court which uses game theory, cryptocurrency, and anonymity to (one hopes) guarantee fair and binding outcomes. Jurors, who could be anywhere in the world and who cannot contact each other, are financially incentivized to vote not necessarily for what they believe to be right, but what they believe the other jurors will think is right. This leaves the door open for a populist kind of justice, but for more routine cases as well as for decentalized, international organizations, Aragon Court could provide a way forward in a brave new world.
It seems fanciful to imagine platforms like Aragon Court in a country where courthouses without wireless internet still exist. However hobbled and starved our institutions may be, that doesn’t stop the world from moving on around them, for good or ill. There may come a time when appearing bodily in court seems as old fashioned as powdered wigs. Justice will still be needed in any future that lies ahead, though, whether we are getting ticketed in our flying cars or cited for poaching deer on the local CEO’s demesne. Let us hope that the new judges and courts, whatever form they take, remain as robustly committed to equality before the law as our most aspirational ancestors were.