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Written by Jasmine Ng (Associate Author) | Mentored by Andrew Wong | Reviewed by Yap Jia Qing

LawTech.Asia is proud to conclude the second run of its Associate Author (Winter 2019) Programme. The aim of the Associate Authorship Programme is to develop the knowledge and exposure of student writers in the domains of law and technology, while providing them with mentorship from LawTech.Asia’s writers and tailored guidance from a well-respected industry mentor.

As part of a partnership with the National University of Singapore’s alt+law and Singapore Management University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Club, five students were selected as Associate Authors. This piece by Jasmine Ng, reviewed by industry reviewer Yap Jia Qing (Founder, Emerging Tech Policy Forum), marks the first thought piece in this series, examines how legal technology can be better used in Singapore to improve access to justice.

Introduction

From the ubiquitous presence of virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, to the achievements of Google’s DeepMind technologies on facial recognition and machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) and other data-based technology are a growing part of everyone’s lives. Technological advancement has also made a huge impact on the legal industry. In his speech at the Opening of the Legal Year 2019,[1] Singapore’s Chief Justice, Sundaresh Menon CJ, recognised technology as a key driving force of the seismic changes to the legal industry’s operating environment. 

With this changing landscape in mind, the Singapore Judiciary has taken steps to maintain Singapore’s position as a progressive, adaptive and forward-looking judiciary.[2] Digitalisation is now a key pillar of Singapore’s legal system transformation efforts, which is in line with the Digital Government Blueprint in support of the Smart Nation initiative.[3]These developments are to be welcomed, as they tackle concerns about access to justice (which have been  increasing in the wake of rising inequality). With this context in mind, I will analyse how technology is being used in our legal industry, and how the benefits of legal technology can be better harnessed to improve access to justice.

Inequality is an obstacle in attaining access to justice

In Singapore, one need not be a social scientist to see that rising inequality has been an increasing societal concern – a quick scan of chatroom discussions and media portrayals of the lifestyles of the well-to-do contrasted against the lives of the lower-income groups makes such concerns apparent. With a Gini-coefficient of 0.458,[4] Singapore has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world. This insidious socio-economic phenomenon in turn engenders serious knock-on effects, including on access to justice. Lower-income individuals are often unable to afford the high fees charged by lawyers, and this bars them from seeking legal recourse. This phenomenon highlights that inequalities in wealth often result in unequal access to legal services, with the lower-income groups often finding it the most difficult to obtain justice. It should also be highlighted that access to justice issues do not merely apply to individuals, but also for businesses as legal costs can be crippling for small and medium enterprises which contribute to 48% of Singapore’s GDP.

Access to justice can be examined in two main dimensions in Singapore: (a) a resource gap; and (b) an information gap.  The resource gap can be generally understood as the inability to access legal services as it may be too costly for the “sandwich class”[5] and the lower-income group in society. The information gap, on the other hand, can be understood as a legal literacy problem which manifest itself not only in an inadequate understanding of our laws and legal system, but more fundamentally in the lack of awareness of the legal dimensions of a given situation. More simply put, one who lacks legal literacy may not even recognise that their problem is one that has a legal remedy, much less know how to go about solving it. Ultimately, the more crucial impact is in closing the information gap as access to justice goes far beyond legal disputes. It would be in the interest of the parties to resolve any matter without the need for expensive legal representation. Hence, promoting legal literacy in the citizens is arguably the most important aim when trying to improve access to justice in Singapore.

Access to justice is a pertinent problem as it can impact public confidence in Singapore courts system and belief in the right to “equality before the law” enshrined in Singapore’s Constitution.[6] Social harmony would be difficult to maintain if there are citizens who feel that their rights are constantly infringed, with no practical recourse to the law.

The potential for legal technology to improve access to justice

Recent breakthroughs in machine learning and natural language processing have attracted a great deal of interest in the legal sector over the past few years.[7] Professor Richard Susskind termed such technological breakthroughs as “disruptive legal technologies” as those that can “fundamentally challenge or overhaul” traditional legal practices and benefit potential litigants for instance, by increasing efficiency of the court and reducing legal costs.[8]

As a self-proclaimed “techno-optimist”, I strongly share the sentiments of Professor Benjamin Barton and Stephanos Bibas that “technology and new approaches to dispute resolution have led us to the threshold of a new golden age of access to justice.”[9]

I will assess how legal technology is changing the legal industry to improve access to justice in three different aspects: (a) the courts, (b) law firms; and (c) alternative dispute resolution.

Legal technology in the Singapore Courts

To close the resource gap, Singapore has been taking steady steps towards court digitalisation and automation to improve the ability for litigants to gain access to our court system.[10]

For example, the online case filing and management system for claims in the Small Claims Tribunals (“SCT”) was launched in July 2017 to facilitate case filing system in the State Courts. Another example is the Singapore Courts’ use of AI (in collaboration with A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research) to create the Intelligent Court Transcription System (“iCTS”).[11] Utilising neural networks trained with language models and domain-specific terms (such as legal terminology), the iCTS carries the potential to increase court efficiency by transcribing court hearings in real-time, thus allowing judges and parties to review oral testimonies in court instantaneously and removing the need to hire a human transcriber.[12]

To close the information gap, the State Courts have also been using technology to facilitate access to legal information and connect litigants-in-person to sources of legal help. One relevant initiative is the Civil Online Toolkit, an online resource mobile application which provides information on civil court processes and procedures. The Civil Online Toolkit is envisaged to provide a one-stop access to all the information required for litigants-in-person who might not have the benefit of legal representation. The information is presented in easy-to-understand language, with information on what litigants can expect at each of civil proceedings and the relevant application forms they need to complete.

The new State Courts Towers in Singapore. The State Courts and, more broadly, the Singapore Judiciary, have been strong advocates for the use of technology in advancing justice. Image credit: TODAYOnline

Law Firms

Thomas H. Davenport once noted that “in the short term, AI will provide evolutionary benefits; in the long run, it is likely to be revolutionary.”[13] Developments in legal technology and AI are expected to challenge law firms’ traditional practices and substantially increase law firms’ efficiency in providing legal services, and potentially decrease legal costs. In the long term, AI may be able to provide more people with legal services, at a lower cost. This in turn closes the resource gap to access to justice.

There is an increasing number of software and applications that can facilitate lawyers, one such example is the contract pre-screening ThoughtRiver system developed by UK and based in Singapore.[14] With its ability to ask thousands of questions to extract knowledge on issues that users are interested in, the system simulates the contract review process by making logical connections between clauses.

Another example is ROSS Intelligence, an AI-based system that analyses case law to provide the most authoritative and relevant cases for lawyers doing legal research. With ROSS’ ability to complete legal research tasks in minutes that would traditionally take lawyers many hours to do, ROSS is able to save clients on time costs and help lawyers save time and focus on refining arguments rather than searching through voluminous tomes of potentially irrelevant information.[15]While ROSS is currently not available in Singapore, such systems may eventually usher in a watershed moment in how lawyers conduct legal research – much like how LawNet brought a sea change in legal research from books to computers.

Further, time-consuming tasks such as discovery and document review can already be augmented by AI to free up time for lawyers. These technologies enable lawyers to spend more time on substantive work, thus further increasing efficiency and potentially reduce legal costs.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Since the establishment of the Courts of the Future Taskforce led by Justice Lee Seiu Kin in 2016, a unified One Judiciary IT Steering Committee and the Technology Blueprint for the Singapore Courts has been initiated.[16] The main purpose of this committee was to oversee the adoption of legal technology and the incubation of the legal technology scene in Singapore. Since then, the State Courts launched the Community Justice and Tribunal System (“CJTS”), an integrated justice solution providing online dispute resolution options such as e-negotiation and e-mediation for litigants-in-person. 

The CJTS helps to close both the resource and information gap by various means. First, it allows parties to file their claims online at any time. Second, asynchronous e-mediation allows parties flexibility and faster resolution of the matter compared to offline mediation, which would have normally posed challenges where parties have conflicting schedules. Third, the CJTS provides digital access to a suite of court services, such as e-Filing, e-Casefile, e-Payment and e-Orders. These digital services benefit litigants-in-person by providing savings in cost, time and convenience. Extensive user guides are also provided on the CJTS for easier navigation.

Ultimately, the Singapore Courts’ efforts have centred on user needs and how technology can enhance one’s experience of court processes.[17] Not only do these steps bring greater efficiency and cost savings, they also bring Singapore closer to the loftier goals of becoming a Smart Nation and enhancing access to justice.

There is still potential for Singapore to better harness the benefits of legal technology

In his speech at the Opening of Legal Year 2020, Menon CJ mentioned how Singapore’s law firms have not been actively embracing technological solutions as compared to their international firm counterparts. By way of examples, global firms like Ashurst has the “NewLaw” platform, which combine expertise and technology to provide clients with high-quality but lower-cost services in a single dynamically-managed package.[18] Clifford Chance has been developing in-house digital capabilities, recruiting technologists, and tapping on the expertise of external service providers through their “Automation Academy”.[19]

Why might there be this gap between our local profession and our international counterparts? A commonly cited reason is the deeply ingrained principle of stare decisis (or more simply put, reliance on precedents), resulting in professionals preferring longstanding practices over adopting novel technologies. To alleviate challenges with the adoption of legal technology, the Law Society of Singapore has launched financial support schemes for the adoption of technology solutions, such as the “Tech Start for Law” and “Tech-celerate for Law” programmes.[20] These schemes provide financial incentives for small and medium-sized law firms to adopt legal technology into their practices. However, it is posited that while financial support schemes and knowledge-sharing sessions (e.g. the Law Society’s SmartLaw Guild workshops and sharing sessions) may be useful,[21] more can be done to encourage the adoption of legal technology in Singapore practices.

For an idea of how legal technology can better utilised in Singapore, one can turn to overseas examples. For example, Chinese courts are using technology to eliminate the physical distance between persons and institutions of justice. “Weisu”, a courtroom application, can be launched on the popular “super-app” WeChat to allow users to virtually enter the courtroom from anywhere with an internet connection. Weisu not only allow users to attend court meetings, but also identity verification, submission of documents, and even text transcription using WeChat’s voice-to-text capabilities.[22] Taking a leaf from this example, Singapore could consider developing online courtrooms where parties are allowed to access legal services at their convenience, thus reducing the need for lengthy in-person court appearances and court fees. With the global COVID pandemic already forcing our courts to turn to video-conferencing to conduct court hearings, the idea of a virtual court may not be such a far-fetched idea after all.

That said, the use of technology does present its own set of problems. These include regulatory issues, and the possibility of technology abuse. For the latter, one example is synthetic media,[23] which leverages AI to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive. In the specific example of “Weisu”, synthetic media could be abused by litigants or lawyers to deceive the judge during an online court trial proceeding. In a more extreme example, a deep fake video of Donald Trump created by the Belgian political party Socialistische Partij Anders provoked comments and many expressed outrage that the American president would dare weigh in on Belgium’s climate policy.[24] This is merely a small-scale demonstration of how technology could be abused to create and spread misinformation. While the example is set in the context of politics and social media, there is nothing to preclude the possibility of similar risks arising in online court proceedings using video conferencing technology. This could potentially undermine online dispute resolution as a reliable alternative to conventional dispute resolution. 

Further, the use of technology in courtrooms, such as online dispute resolution platforms, could raise cybersecurity risks, in turn requiring multiple layers of protection spread across networks, programs or data to create effective cyber-defences.[25] A failure to introduce such protections could result in serious issues such as personal data and loss of sensitive information. As the relatively recent SingHealth cyberattack demonstrated, [26] cybersecurity miscreants may wreak havoc at any time, and from anytime, often with massive implications for the target systems and victims. In this regard, we should be mindful that every digital system is only as strong as its weakest link (with the weakest link often being the human factor). Cautious steps should be taken to ensure that such issues do not similarly arise from the use of legal technologies.

Conclusion

Although technology adoption has gained traction in the legal industry, the development of technology also continues in a parallel fashion (and often faster than the actual adoption of technology). Thus, there is a continuing need to “keep up with the Joneses” – it may be an unending race for the legal industry to keep up to date with technological advancements. As tiresome it may be however, the outcome will be worth it – a narrowing of resource and information gaps and a legal system better equipped to meet the needs of those who need access to justice the most.

This does not, however, mean that we should adopt technology indiscriminately without ensuring, for instance, that the technological solutions can work hand-in-hand with our legal processes and meet the actual needs of end-users. A pragmatic and conscientious approach should be taken when adopting technology to guard against risks such as cybersecurity risks and technology abuse. Above all, the legal profession would do well to remember that technology is never the solution, but the approach to the solution. The central piece to the puzzle will never be the Alexas or Siris of the world, but the human lawyer using it.


[1] Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, “Address at the Opening of The Legal Year 2019”, Supreme Court Singapore (7 January 2019), online: https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/news/speeches/chief-justice-sundaresh-menon–address-at-the-opening-of-the-legal-year-2019-1

[2]The Honourable Justice See Kee Oon, “State Courts: 2020 and Beyond”, State Courts Singapore (8 March 2019), online: https://www.statecourts.gov.sg/cws/Resources/Documents/State_Courts_Workplan2019_KeynoteAddress(FINAL).pdf

[3] Online: https://www.tech.gov.sg/digital-government-blueprint/

[4] “Singapore household incomes grew in 2018, income inequality stable”, Channel News Asia (13 February 2019), online: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-household-income-grew-in-2018-income-inequality-11238462

[5] The Sandwich class is commonly known to be too rich to be granted legal aid and yet too poor to afford legal services at market rate.

[6] Singapore Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, (1965 Rev. Ed.) at Article 9.

[7] Joanna Goodman, Robots in Law: How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming Legal Services, (ARK Group, 2016).

[8] Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, 2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) at p15.

[9] Benjamin H Barton, Stephanos Bibas, Rebooting Justice: More Technology, Fewer Lawyers and the Future of Law (Encounter Books, 2017) at p195.

[10] World Bank Group Ranking on Ease of Doing Business 2019 – Singapore is ranked second in terms of having a business-friendly environment. Court automation is one of the indicators of ease of conducting business, and Singapore has scored well in this regard.

[11] Louisa Tang, “Real-time AI transcribing system, co-working space to be rolled out at the new State Courts towers”, Today (8 March 2019), online: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/real-time-ai-transcribing-system-co-working-space-be-rolled-out-new-state-courts-towers?cid=h3_referral_inarticlelinks_03092019_todayonline

[12]Supra note 2

[13] Thomas H. Davenport, The AI Advantage, how to put artificial intelligence revolution to work, (The MIT Press, 2018) at p 7.

[14] Online: https://www.thoughtriver.com/

[15]Online:  https://rossintelligence.com/

[16] Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, “Response at the Opening of The Legal Year 2016”, Supreme Court Singapore (11 January 2016), online: https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/news/speeches/chief-justice-sundaresh-menon–response-at-the-opening-of-the-legal-year-2016

[17] Supra note 2

[18] Online: https://www.ashurst.com/en/innovation/

[19] Online: https://www.cliffordchance.com/hubs/innovation-and-best-delivery-hub/innovation-and-best-delivery.html

[20] Online: https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/lpi/tech-celerate-for-law/

[21] Lester Wong, “Law Society encourages firms to adopt new technology”, The Straits Times (15 May 2019), online: https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/law-society-encourages-firms-to-adopt-new-technology

[22] Masha Borak, “China embraces tech in its courtrooms”, Technode (24 October 2018), online: https://technode.com/2018/10/24/china-court-technology/

[23] Online: https://lab.witness.org/projects/synthetic-media-and-deep-fakes/

[24] Oscar Schwartz, “You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are whether truth goes to die”, The Guardian (12 November 2018), online: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/nov/12/deep-fakes-fake-news-truth

[25] Stevens, “Global Cybersecurity: New Directions in theory and methods. Politics and Governance” (2018) Vol. 6(2) 

[26] Public Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Cyber Attack on Singapore Health Services Private Limited’s Patient Database on or around 27 June 2018 (10 January 2019) Online: https://www.mci.gov.sg/-/media/mcicorp/doc/report-of-the-coi-into-the-cyber-attack-on-singhealth-10-jan-2019.ashx

This piece was written as part of LawTech.Asia’s Associate Authorship Programme.

Image credit: Serie Architects