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COVID-19 can stimulate the legal profession to embrace technological change

Bill Gates predicted that if anything were to kill millions of people and disrupt the global economy, it would be an epidemic rather than a war.  Prophetically, he suggested the world would not be ready.

In this same way, new research shows the world’s courts and legal systems are far from ready to cope with new ways of working due to COVID-19 restrictions, despite suitable assistive technologies and online systems being available as early as the 1970s.

Victoria University Professor John Zeleznikow, a specialist in the effect of technology on the law, and University of Newcastle Law School Dean, Professor Tania Sourdin, analysed the responses of justice systems around the world to the pandemic. They found most digital tools now in use due to physical restrictions remain in the more rudimentary tiers of technological change.

“The law is a conservative profession, and so the uptake of technology and innovation that was thrust upon it has been patchy.

"There are many issues to consider about the extent to which these changes can, or will, endure beyond COVID-19,” Professor Zeleznikow said.

Three categories of responses

The research found COVID-impacted technology responses in a range of justice systems fell into three categories:

  • Rudimentary technologies – those that support legal activities such as online legal applications or remote hearings that simulate physical contact. They provide the necessary building blocks for courts to move to more sophisticated technologies.
  • Replacement technologies – those that replace the roles and activities traditionally conducted by humans, such as on-line mediation programs.
  • Disruptive technologies – the most advanced changes that fundamentally alter the way legal professionals work, such as algorithm-based decision-making programs.

Professor Zeleznikow said while he expected the pandemic would have led to the more widespread use of virtual services, many jurisdictions simply adjourned activities such as jury trails due to deficiencies in technological innovations.

He said it was critical this situation was urgently addressed for the expected “tsunami” of second-wave legal disputes that the pandemic will cause – such as workplace issues, insolvency cases, and cancelled contracts.

“The pandemic paved new opportunities for the legal profession to embrace technological change.

"Now is the time to consider how these changes can be made fit for purpose, with the capacity to respond to any future challenges.”

Courts, Mediation, and COVID-19 was published online in the Australian Business Law Review. It is listed on research publisher SSRN's Top Ten Download List for: Law & Technology, and Litigants & the Judiciary.

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