On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, I was invited for a panel discussion in Mechelen by the Flemish Legal Counsel Association (Vlaamse Juristenvereniging). The subject for the night was “Brave New Justice – or how robots are taking over justice.”
It turned out to be an animated evening, where Frank Judo from the Vlaamse Juristenvereniging provided a solid intro, followed by an interesting intermezzo on robots in the medical world by Dr. Tom Tuytten, urological robot surgeon in Hasselt.
Successively, we got to the main event. The panel consisted of Paul Danneels (FedNot), Jelle Flo (judge in the court of first instance of West Flanders), Johan van Driessche (OVB / Diplad) and myself. Helen Goedgebeur (VRT) moderated the evening.
Allow me to highlight some of the most interesting things that came up during our debate:
1. The Federation of Notaries is very active monitoring legal technology and innovation. They recently launched a number of chatbots built on the Oswald platform, which provides answers to the most pressing questions and should help litigants find their way to a notary sooner. Translating legal jargon into bite-sized text for chatbots proved to be the biggest hurdle. Not that surprising as chatbot technology cannot yet properly deal with technical or hierarchical texts, but prefers simple sentences. In addition, the federation is not an adversary of blockchain, and is fully exploring the opportunities it has to offer. So, kudos to our notaries!
2. Jelle Flo dropped a real bomb: courts hardly have a data structure and organization. Judges cannot just compare existing judgments in a database to reduce their “workload.” This results in considerably long waiting times at the courts (which are extensively covered in the media). Judges rely on personal Gmail addresses to transfer files to themselves or colleagues (the e-mail boxes provided by the Justice Department don’t allow ‘large’ files). This implies that judgments – without anonymization (!) – are simply shared via an American data company. When I asked whether they at least had access to case law themselves – the original frustration was that there was no open data available for legal tech companies – the mind blowing answer was no, hence why judges have to start drafting every judgement from scratch. All too crazy of course, and one of the top priorities for legal tech within Justice must be the disclosure of all court judgments, albeit anonymous. Legal tech using artificial intelligence and machine learning requires vast amounts of data, and as long as that’s missing, Belgium has no chance of a serious innovation. Hallucinant.
3. Johan Van Driessche from the Flemish Bar Association repeatedly pointed out – after my interventions – that the Bar is in fact making considerable efforts to apply legal technology. Although that is true to a certain extent, it seems to me that the Bar Association too often takes a wait and see approach when it comes to legal tech. They have ignored the evolution for a while, and are now coping with it. However, it should be paramount for the Bar to really embrace technology and move beyond the current status-quo in the legal world. Although I’m not solely blaming the Bar – the Justice Department and individual lawyers must create their own future – it should nevertheless take up a more leading role in the innovation debate.
4. As for myself, I have repeatedly stressed the fact that it makes little sense – at least at this stage – to preach a fear for science fiction scenarios. Customer centricity – putting the customer first – is far too little present in the legal profession. Although we’re all entrepreneurs, customer focus is absolutely not a priority in the legal industry. And that’s exactly what’s wrong. Because today’s customers are no longer the customers of ten years ago. With the rise of e-commerce platforms where people are immediately served, customers require the same level of service in all other industries too. It’s up to lawyers themselves to respond to the true client needs, communicating clear and intelligibly. In addition, I see a legal tech market – certainly in Belgium – that is still very premature and very fragmented. Most law firms that currently invest in legal tech mainly do so to optimize internal processes. There is of course nothing wrong with that, but for now I’m still waiting for a real breakthrough in customer-focused legal tech.
Fascinating debate, fascinating evening. Thanks to the Vlaamse Juristenvereniging for this pleasant opportunity!