In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has woven its way into the fabric of the legal profession, transforming the way legal tasks are approached and executed. While initially embraced by larger firms, the trend has shifted, with small and medium-sized firms increasingly adopting AI tools. This surge in AI implementation brings promises of efficiency, cost reduction, and increased transparency, but it also raises critical questions about potential risks and the accessibility of legal assistance.
According to the 2023 Risk Outlook Report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), AI is projected to automate time-consuming tasks and enhance the speed and capacity of legal processes. For smaller firms with limited administrative support, this could be a game-changer, reducing costs and potentially improving the transparency of legal decision-making – provided there is robust monitoring of the technology.
However, the report also highlights the risks associated with AI, including the possibility of errors leading to false or misleading advice, a phenomenon known as “hallucinations.” The spectre of improper advice and even miscarriages of justice looms large if these errors are not adequately addressed. A precedent in the United States, where a lawyer submitted fabricated judicial decisions, serves as a cautionary tale, prompting English judges to receive guidance on the responsible use of AI in December 2023.
The UK’s approach to regulating AI remains cautious, focusing on industry-initiated “guardrails” rather than imposing stringent regulatory frameworks as seen in the EU’s AI Act. While acknowledging the technological challenges and potential biases in AI algorithms, the UK’s reserved stance prompts concerns about the true impact of AI on access to justice.
The hype surrounding AI in the legal sphere implies that individuals facing litigation will have expert tools at their disposal. However, this optimistic outlook overlooks a significant portion of the population without regular or direct internet access, lacking the necessary devices, or facing financial constraints that limit their ability to leverage AI tools.
Despite the strides made in internet accessibility, a substantial number of people remain unconnected. Unlike basic customer service issues that can be addressed through chatbots, legal problems are intricate and demand tailored responses. Even advanced AI, while potentially transformative, may fall short, as witnessed in flawed algorithms in fields like medicine or benefit fraud detection.
Compounding the issue is the Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO 2012), which introduced funding cuts to legal aid, narrowing financial eligibility criteria. This has led to an increase in self-representation in court, further widening the access gap. Even if these individuals could access AI tools, their ability to comprehend the information and its legal implications might be hindered. Communicating effectively before a judge adds another layer of complexity, raising doubts about the practicality of relying solely on AI for legal support.
Legal personnel, with their ability to explain complex processes, potential outcomes, and offer emotional support, play a crucial role in the justice system. While AI has the potential to enhance access to justice, it must grapple with existing structural and societal inequalities. As technology advances at a rapid pace and the human touch diminishes, there is a genuine risk of creating a significant divide in access to legal advice – a development at odds with the initial aspirations behind encouraging AI use in the legal field.
In conclusion, while the integration of AI in the legal profession holds tremendous potential, it is imperative to strike a balance between technological innovation and ensuring equitable access to justice. The evolving landscape requires careful consideration of the impact on individuals who may be left on the fringes due to a lack of resources or digital literacy. As we navigate this transformative era, it is crucial to uphold the principles of justice and fairness, ensuring that AI becomes a tool for empowerment rather than a source of exclusion.