January 7, 2023 - 8:00am

In February, the Sun informs us, an artificial intelligence robot will break new ground in the legal world by defending a client in court. The defendant’s phone will relay proceedings to the AI’s server, and the defendant will say only what the AI tells him to, via an earpiece. 

In the UK this would almost certainly amount to a contempt of court. So I was not surprised to discover, from the paywalled New Scientist article from which the Sun draws its report, that the project’s leader is keeping the court hearing’s location a secret — somewhere, apparently, “where this set-up can be classed as a hearing aid”. 

The bold entrepreneur behind the exciting venture is 27-year-old Joshua Browder — son of Bill, the Anglo-American financier who has campaigned for multilateral sanctions against corrupt regimes ever since his tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Russian jail. The plan originates from, and promotes, an app the younger Browder launched in 2015 while at Stanford University, called DoNotPay. It claims it can get you out of parking tickets and the like. 

On the UK app store it has a rating of 3.1, with the word “scam” featuring heavily in the first several reviews. A 2021 puff piece records a valuation of some $200m, with investment from such luminaries as Andreesen Horowitz and, er, Sam Bankman-Fried. The latter does not currently feature on the investor list on the app’s Wikipedia page.

Having recently appealed a private parking ticket on the Independent Adjudicator Service website, I wouldn’t actually be surprised if the app could be of some use. The parking company’s submissions read very much like they were written by a bot, and they threw the towel in as soon as I responded to their final effort. Perhaps I could have written anything. But should you be taking legal advice from a chatbot at this point? No. 

People often think they need a lawyer to put in all those credible-sounding “hereinafters” and other formal turns of phrase. Which I suppose they do, but that guff is really only there to beguile the laity. If you want to appeal a parking ticket you should just briefly explain why you shouldn’t pay and hope for the best. 

In fact, AI already has a place in the legal process. Tedious disclosure reviews once performed by armies of young lawyers — searching for keywords and making judgments about relevance — are now often carried out by machine. And with better access to training data, algorithms that predict the chance of a case’s success will come to outperform lawyers’ judgment. Even the subtleties of courtroom strategy may soon fall victim to a well-trained AI. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta recently developed software that can beat most human players at Diplomacy — the ultimate game of negotiation and verbal tactics. 

Could we even reach the point, in the near future, where an AI could pen a more persuasive jury speech, or write the cross-examination questions most likely to trip a witness up? Quite possibly. But I take solace from one seemingly immutable aspect of human nature, by no means absent in the legal industry: people like to pay other people to do things for them. It makes them feel important, and reduces loneliness. You might want a lawyer with an AI assistant, but you will still want a lawyer. Even, sometimes, to get you out of parking tickets.

Adam King is a criminal barrister at QEB Hollis Whiteman.