Don’t fear robo-justice. Algorithms could help more people access legal advice

John ZeleznikowVictoria University

This post by ADR Research Network member and Professor John Zeleznikow appeared in academic commentary site The Conversation on 23 October 2017.

File 20171018 32345 1tsa5e8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Should we be afraid of robo-justice?
Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock

You may have heard that algorithms will take over the world. But how are they operating right now? We take a look in our series on Algorithms at Work.


Algorithms have a role to play in supporting but not replacing the role of lawyers.

Around 15 years ago, my team and I created an automated tool that helped determine eligibility for legal aid. Known as GetAid, we built it for Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), which helps people with legal problems to find representation. At that time, the task of determining who could access its services chewed up a significant amount of VLA’s operating budget.

After passing a financial test, applicants also needed to pass a merit test: would their case have a reasonable chance of being accepted by a court? GetAid provided advice about both stages using decision trees and machine learning.

It never came online for applicants. But all these years later, the idea of using tools such as GetAid in the legal system is being taken seriously. Humans now feel far more comfortable using software to assist with, and even make, decisions. There are two major reasons for this change:

  • Efficiency: the legal community has moved away from charging clients in six-minute blocks and instead has become concerned with providing economical advice.
  • Acceptance of the internet: legal professionals finally acknowledge that the internet can be a safe way of conducting transactions and can be used to provide important advice and to collect data.

This is a good development. Intelligent decision support systems can help streamline the legal system and provide useful advice to those who cannot afford professional assistance.

Intelligent legal decision support systems

While robots are unlikely to replace judges, automated tools are being developed to support legal decision making. In fact, they could help support access to justice in areas such as divorce, owners corporation disputes and small value contracts.

In cases where litigants cannot afford the assistance of lawyers or choose to appear in court unrepresented, systems have been developed that can advise about the potential outcome of their dispute. This helps them have reasonable expectations and make acceptable arguments.

Our Split-Up software, for example, helps users understand how Australian Family Court judges distribute marital property after a divorce.

The innovative part of the process is not the computer algorithm, but dividing the process into 94 arguments, including issues such as the contributions of the wife relative to the husband; the future needs of the wife relative to the husband; and the marriage’s level of wealth.

Using a form of statistical machine learning known as a neural network, it examines the strength of the weighting factors – contributions, needs and level of wealth – to determine an answer about the possible percentage split.

Other platforms follow a similar model. Developed by the Dutch Legal Aid Board, the Rechtwijzer dispute resolution platform allows people who are separating to answer questions that ultimately guide them to information relevant to their family situation.

Another major use of intelligent online dispute resolution is the British Columbia Civil Resolution System. It helps people affordably resolve small claims disputes of C$5,000 and under, as well as strata property conflicts.

Its initiators say that one of the common misconceptions about the system is that it offers a form of “robojustice” – a future where “disputes are decided by algorithm”.

Instead, they argue the Civil Resolution Tribunal is human-driven:

From the experts who share their knowledge through the Solution Explorer, to the dispute resolution professionals serving as facilitators and adjudicators, the CRT rests on human knowledge, skills and judgement.

Concerns about the use of robo-justice

Twenty years after we first began constructing intelligent legal decision support systems, the underlying algorithms are not much smarter, but developments in computer hardware mean machines can now search larger databases far quicker.

Critics are concerned that the use of machine learning in the legal system will worsen biases against minorities, or deepen the divide between those who can afford quality legal assistance and those who cannot.

There is no doubt that algorithms will continue to perform existing biases against vulnerable groups, but this is because the algorithms are largely copying and amplifying the decision-making trends embedded in the legal system.

In reality, there is already a class divide in legal access – those who can afford high quality legal professionals will always have an advantage. The development of intelligent support systems can partially redress this power imbalance by providing users with important legal advice that was previously unavailable to them.

There will always be a need for judges with advanced legal expertise to deal with situations that fall outside the norm. Artificial intelligence relies upon learning from prior experience and outcomes, and should not be used to make decisions about the facts of a case.

The ConversationUltimately, to pursue “real justice”, we need to change the law. In the meantime, robots can help with the smaller stuff.

John Zeleznikow, Professor of Information Systems; Research Associate, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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ADR and the Importance of Data

A recent post by Dr Becky Batagol had me thinking about the importance of good data collection in the field of ADR.  ADR proponents make many claims about the benefits of ADR.  We also know that most dispute resolution processes occur behind closed doors, which challenges our ability to make sweeping statements about “what goes on” in ADR processes.  Good data, collected from third party facilitators, disputing parties and non participant observers, helps us to make strong claims about the efficacy of ADR forums.

Such data may help us to more clearly consider questions that we believe we already know the answer to.  Do ADR processes really preserve relationships when compared to litigation?  Are the values of self-determination and autonomy actively promoted in ADR?  Do parties focus more on their interests, rather than their positions in ADR?  Are remedies achieved in ADR more flexible and varied, compared to court adjudication?

ADR researchers also need to consider methodological approaches that allow us to say things like:

  • ADR is cheaper than litigation.
    ADR is quicker than litigation.
    Settlement rates in ADR are high (compared to what?)
    Party satisfaction with ADR processes is high.

When I think about these claims, I think about the (initial) words of Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence… “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable”.  I think good data allows us to cast sunlight on many of ADR’s claims.  It is important that we do shine light on these claims, so that users and providers of ADR services understand what ADR can and cannot sensibly lay claim to.  Becky made reference in her earlier post to data that would be useful to have:

  • settlement rates
    factors that may influence settlement rates, such as referral stage
    what happens when disputes are not settled at ADR
    participant satisfaction with ADR and perceptions of fairness, the time and costs expended by participants and service providers.

For members of the ADR research network and readers of this blog – what other data do you think we should be trying to collect??

James

Wishin’ and Hopin’: ADR Policy in Victoria

The past couple of years have seen dispute resolution increasingly politicised in Australia, as we have explained elsewhere. The Victorian election, held on 29 November this year and which resulted in a change of government, is no exception.

The new Australian Labor Party (ALP) government has made an explicit commitment to increasing use of ADR in Victoria. The government’s pre-election platform states (at p 67-8):

 Where disputes occur, Government should provide Victorians with options to resolve them at the earliest stage to avoid the cost, stress and delay that is often a feature of traditional court proceedings.

Specific policies promised in relation to ADR include increased promotion of mediation and ramping up the dispute resolution options at VCAT, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, so that it is restored as “a simple, low cost jurisdiction that assists parties seeking speedy resolution of their matters in a less formal and intimidating environment.”

The government has also committed in its platform to providing increased access to justice for vulnerable Victorians (p.67). It has promised an inquiry into access to justice in Victoria including into availability and funding of Community Legal Centres (CLCs). Specific measures pledged to improve access to justice include increased funding for Victoria Legal Aid, addressing “the clogging of the court system”, fixing the problems with funding cuts at VCAT and encouraging more lawyers to work at Community Legal Centres through providing incentives such as scholarships and HECS rebates.

Related promises in the ALP platform include mainstreaming into the broader court system some of the successes of the problem-oriented courts set up in Victoria over the past decade (p.64) so that offenders are better connected to the services they need to address their offending.

While the previous government was in power Victoria from 2010-14, ADR policy moved slowly at best. The Attorney-General for that government, Robert Clark, had publicly expressed his commitment to ADR, stating to the LEADR Kongress in September last year: “The State government is a strong supporter of ADR and the role it can play in bringing about just outcomes in a timely and cost-effective manner.” However the record of the coalition government supporting ADR did not match these words when, in 2011, it repealed legislation containing broad-scale pre-action procedures mandating participation in ADR for all civil disputes before the courts. In passing these reforms, the Attorney-General stated in Hansard on 10 Feb 2011 (at p 307):

It is common sense and good practice for parties to attempt to resolve their dispute without resorting to litigation if there is a reasonable prospect of success in such an attempt. However, the government’s view, and the view of many practitioners, is that to seek to compel parties to do so through these heavy-handed provisions will simply add to the complexity, expense and delay of bringing legal proceedings, because of the need to comply with these mandatory requirements, whether or not they are likely to be useful in any particular case.

It is regrettable that the legislation was repealed without any evidence base of the effectiveness of the reforms or independent testing of the Attorney’s claims.

It remains to be seen whether the deeds of this new Victorian government match its words. The fact that ADR and access to justice were explicitly part of the policy platform prior to the election is promising. The new Attorney-General, Martin Pakula, has big shoes to fill, his Labor predecessor being Australia’s most reformist AG, Rob Hulls (Lionel Murphy having fewer years in the job).

While we wait to know more from the government in Victoria, here’s my personal wish-list for the Attorney-General to tackle in relation to dispute resolution/ ADR policy reform in Victoria

  1. A public review of the quality and effectiveness of ADR processes in Victoria. ADR is offered in every Victorian court and by many other state providers. But we know little about the quality of services offered (including settlement rates, satisfaction, inter-professional collaboration around the process and the fairness of outcomes). The Productivity Commission  recently called for all State and Territory governments to conduct an independent public review of the effectiveness and efficiency of dispute resolution mechanisms within their jurisdiction every 5 years, starting by 30 June 2016 (p.298). Such a review would be a good start for a government intent on making an impact where there is already significant state outlay on ADR services and efficient justice investment is an imperative.
  2. Mandating public reporting on standard ADR data by all Victorian ADR service providers (including courts and tribunals, Community Legal Centres, Victoria Legal Aid and other dispute resolution services such as the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria, or DSCV). Higher quality and consistent data collection would enable us to understand whether existing ADR services meet their aims and whether gaps in service provision exist. Higher quality data means that money can be efficiently allocated where there is highest need. The public availability of such data is crucial to ensure transparency in provision of dispute resolution services when ADR lacks the many of the fairness protections available in the public court system. The absence of adequate dispute resolution data was noted by the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) in its 2008 report on Victoria’s civil justice system in relation to the effectiveness of court-ordered mediation in Victoria (at pp 278-83). In 2009, when the Victorian Parliament’s Law Reform Committee recommended that

    At a minimum, the Committee believes that there is a need for consistent data collection across ADR service providers about:

    -settlement rates

    -factors that may influence settlement rates, such as referral stage

    -what happens when disputes are not settled at ADR

    -participant satisfaction with ADR and perceptions of fairness the time and costs expended by participants and service providers. (pp. 58–59)

  3. Widespread use of family group conferences for child protection matters usually commenced in the Children’s Court of Victoria. In 2010, just prior to the State election in that year, the Victorian Law Reform Commission set out a range of options for reform of the processes followed in child protection cases in the Children’s Court of Victoria. One of the options canvassed involved a graduated range of supported, structured
    and child-centred agreement-making processes as the principal means of determining child protection application outcomes instead of existing court processes. The Commission noted that most agreements in child protection matters are already the result of informal bargaining between the parties’ lawyers (at para 7.4) and that supported and child-centered processes such as family group conferences would better enable agreements that are in the best interests of the children involved and which stick in the longer term. These options for reform were never implemented following the 2010 election and may yet help to ensure that scarce resources already invested in Victoria’s child protection system are directed towards assisting vulnerable children have care arrangements that meet their best interests.
  4. Better connecting and integrating state-funded family violence and police services with federally-funded Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) services so as to better protect those experiencing family violence. In 2010 the Australian and NSW Law Reform Commissions’ joint inquiry into family violence concluded that there was potential for FDR to expeditiously and effectively resolve parenting disputes in cases involving family violence but that there had to be better coordination with State and Territory child protection and family violence systems (at paras 21.12-21.13 and 21.50). The Luke Batty case has clearly demonstrated the need for more effective coordination of state-based family violence and police services and services within the federal family law system. The Victorian government has committed to holding a royal commission into family violence. By committing to work specifically with FDR providers including Family Relationship Centres and Victoria Legal Aid’s Roundtable Dispute Resolution, the Victorian government can help to provide avenues for seamless, safe and supported decision-making following family breakdown for women and children experiencing family violence.

So, that’s my list. What is on your personal wish-list for ADR policy reform in your State or locality?

Becky Batagol would like to disclose that she worked for the Victorian Law Reform Commission on its inquiry into Protection Applications in the Children’s Court of Victoria in 2010.

New edition: Dispute Resolution in Australia: Cases, Commentary and Materials by SPENCER and HARDY

DR in Aust 3rd Ed

 This third edition of Dispute Resolution in Australia: Cases, Commentary and Materials highlights the consolidation of the process of dispute management and resolution, particularly in the government sector. We are now seeing the full impact of government changes to the handling of civil disputation, with the establishment and fusing of specialist tribunals and commissions. The result of the creation of these extra-judicial bodies has been a reduction in some jurisdictions of matters proceeding to trial. The interesting side-effect of this development is the rise of dispute resolution processes within these specialist tribunals and commissions that seek resolution of disputes in order to avoid hearings.

This new edition brings the law up-to-date and features:

  • A new chapter on conflict coaching
  • A re-written chapter on the key elements of arbitral procedures and the common law surrounding arbitral practice featuring the new Uniform Commercial Arbitration Acts
  • A new chapter on dispute resolution and the criminal law system
  • A new chapter on dispute resolution and industrial relations.

Dispute Resolution in Australia: Cases, Commentary and Materials, third edition, is an invaluable resource for both students and practitioners, providing practical guidance and analysis in this dynamic area of the law.

  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Understanding Disputes
  • Chapter 3: Negotiation
  • Chapter 4: Mediation
  • Chapter 5: Conflict Coaching
  • Chapter 6: Other Dispute Resolution Processes
  • Chapter 7: Arbitration
  • Chapter 8: Dispute Resolution in Criminal Law
  • Chapter 9: Dispute Resolution in Family Law
  • Chapter 10: Dispute Resolution in the Workplace
  • Chapter 11: Online Dispute Resolution
  • Chapter 12: The State and Dispute Resolution
  • Chapter 13: Culture and Dispute Resolution
  • Chapter 14: Legal Issues
  • Chapter 15: Ethics, Standards and Dispute Resolution
  • Chapter 16: The Future of Dispute Resolution

Teaching behavioural insights in dispute resolution

As part of an ongoing research project,  I’ve been looking at the impact of behavioural insights on mediation (and dispute resolution more broadly).   By ‘behavioural insights’, I’m referring to fields such as cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics, social psychology,  all of which have been recently made accessible to non-experts through popular books such as  Nudge, Thinking, Fast and Slow and Blink.   

This project is directed at a critical analysis of the impact of these fields on core concepts such as self-determination in mediation.   However, that’s a post for another day  (and in fact a forthcoming book chapter), where I explore the challenges of these fields for foundational concepts in mediation, such as self-determination and party autonomy.   

However, in the process of undertaking this research I have come across some very good teaching resources from the University of Texas’ Ethics Unwrapped site.   I plan to use these in my teaching this semester, as they offer some insights into cognitive biases that, as mediators know only too well,  are common to participants in disputes.      Some of the topics that I have found particularly useful include  –  loss aversion,  framing, and fundamental attribution error.

Dispute Resolution, in Person, for Real

So, I’m excited!

Along with 13 other members of the ADR Research Network, we have been meeting in the glorious sunshine at Queensland University of Technology’s Garden Point Campus this week. Meeting for real, in person. With coffee in hand and fuelled by victuals kindly provided by QUT law school, we have be discussing the most difficult aspects of dispute resolution theory and practice.

The ADR Research Network was founded in 2012 by a group of dispute resolution academics from across Australia. We live and work in the far corners of this big country, from Hobart to Townsville, from the Gold Coast to Bundoora. Some of us are mediators, some lawyers, some legal philosophers, educators and we all live and breathe dispute resolution. We had all met at conferences before and read each others’ work over the years and a few of us have even written together. But we wanted to do more than just see each other occasionally and referee each others’ work: we wanted to engage with each other on what we are working on, we wanted to debate the hard stuff, we wanted to share a laugh.

As well as running this blog, we have decided to write a book together, based around the theme of changing professional identities for both lawyers and mediators in dispute resolution. The increased use of ADR and institutionalisation of processes such as mediation challenge us to rethink the role of lawyers and mediators in dispute resolution. Questions arise such as is mediation now a profession? Is there a single mediation community or are there multiple communities of mediation practice? How do we train lawyers to achieve justice in mediation? What is the basis of an ethical decision making process for mediators? How best do we define mediation and is that important? Should neuroscience affect mediator practice?

The most exciting thing about our book project is that it is so collaborative in nature. Each chapter will be written by a single author but with extensive feedback from the group as a whole and from individual authors. This will create a highly reflective and tightly structured collection that we hope will be central to understanding contemporary dispute resolution practice.

We are still writing and putting together a book proposal. To give you a sense of what we are all writing about, here’s a way to see the tweets we have made over the past few days at the workshop. We have been using the hashtag #adrresearchnetwork. These tweets summarise the ideas raised by each author in our chapters and some of our thoughts around the table as a group.

Stay tuned …

Mediation in the Media

Last night, I watched Episode 1 of Series 2 of Redfern Now,  a compelling Australian drama on the ABC.   That episode contained a number of scenes that would be useful for teaching mediation or dispute resolution, including a mediation between a grandmother and her son-in-law, as well as a coroner’s court scene.    In fact, there are quite a few useful, and some amusing, examples of dispute resolution in the media.    Together with Nicole Cullen of Cullaborate, I have a Pinterest board where I’ve been archiving media clips that I have come across.   If you know any,  feel free to let us know in the comments below!    The link is http://www.pinterest.com/cullaborate/mediation-in-the-media/