During the coronavirus pandemic, technology has made everyday life – or, at least, a version of it – possible. The ‘Great Move Online’ has kept countless businesses open, offered essential services and allowed us to maintain ties with loved ones, despite months of separation. But while so much is now possible, technology has also revealed its own limits, highlighting the importance of the ‘personal touch’ in business and government, as well as in our social lives.
This essay considers what opportunities might be presented to Britain’s legal system and legal services industry by the technological progress we have experienced over the past year. It argues that technology – and, in particular, the new appetite for digital solutions generated by the pandemic – has the potential not only to radically improve operational efficiency and the rule of law on a national level, but also to help to raise Britain’s profile as a global centre for legal innovation and excellence.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 introduced a range of changes to the legal landscape, allowing civil proceedings in magistrate’s courts to be conducted via telephone or video and expanding the use of audio and video live links in criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court building closed, but continued to hear cases online. In so doing, it implemented a range of measures that legal academics (most notably, Richard Susskind) had been advocating for some time. Yet, pandemic-related technology proved its value beyond simply keeping courts open. It demonstrated how technology could assemble geographically dispersed legal teams. It proved how file-sharing systems could minimise inevitable administrative delays. And it shows that real-time transcription or recording systems – often built into videoconferencing software – have the potential to improve record-keeping and transparency. It is vital that the government works to keep up this momentum in helping courts to run more efficiently.
Of course, virtual hearings are not going to be appropriate in all cases. As the course of the pandemic begins to slow, all of us are realising those aspects of human interaction that technology cannot replicate, whether that be human touch, eye contact and simply hearing another’s voice in person. In some areas of the law – in family or immigration law, for example, where cases involve complex personal and social issues– in-person hearings remain a vital service. However, acknowledging this balance helps to provide a path forward. The establishment of a robust, digital system for some, more straightforward areas of the law (for example, following the model of Abu Dhabi’s virtual small claims court) would introduce much-needed technological efficiency to the legal system, while also freeing up resources for the areas that need them most.
Indeed, this approach could offer a solution to one of the legal systems more pressing concerns: availability of legal aid. Since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, legal aid has been radically restructured in the UK, with public funding no longer available for the vast majority of civil, family and immigration cases. Some fourteen local authorities have been classed as ‘legal advice deserts’; areas where no applications for civil legal aid were granted. A targeted approach to online hearings could improve efficiency to such an extent that resources could be reallocated, ensuring that everyone receives the legal advice they deserve, regardless of financial standing.
There is also space for online proceedings in commercial law, with international implications. Britain’s legal system has long been one of its most successful exports. We are a centre for international arbitration for contracts the world over, and embracing technological innovation in this field is vital if we are to maintain this position. For commercial firms, the launch of virtual arbitral tribunals – which have just passed a year-long stress test – provides a model for moving certain commercial proceedings in public courts online. As other countries around the world, including China, race to establish international digital legal platforms, government support for similar initiatives in the UK should be seen as a core element of maintaining our national advantage.
Finally, a large part of Britain’s standing on the international stage stems from its legal system, with the UK having long been the gold standard for the rule of law. These principles include such inalienable rights as equality before the law and the concept of a fair trial, as well as accessibility of legal systems and the power of reason over personal discretion. As the world embarks on a new digital age, the technological quick-fixes that proved invaluable in the pandemic have great potential to reinforce these principles further. The law can be more transparent, more consistent and more accessible with technology. This is undoubtedly true. But technology is not the answer to everything.
Moving forward, I would ask the government to follow a model such as that set out above. I would ask it to harnesses the power of technology, while recognising its limitations. Technology could transform some areas of the law with previously unimaginable efficiency and it could bolster Britain’s place on the world stage, but it could also offer a real opportunity to recognise the role that the personal touch plays in all our lives, reallocating human resources where they are most essential.