As the existing global pandemic engulfs our lives, both personally and professionally, the length of its persistence remains unpredictable. Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected. Just by looking at the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009, which lasted for about 16 months, we can safely assume that Covid-19 is here to stay for (at least) the near future. In such a scenario, the Supreme Court of India has switched to hearing matters via video conferencing with the help of two-three benches. The Supreme Court heard 593 matters via video conferencing and delivered judgement in 215 of them in a month (March-April) during the unprecedented nationwide lockdown which was announced on 21st March for a period of 3 weeks and further extended till May 3, 2020.
According to the annual report 2018-19, published by the Supreme Court, a total of 34,653 cases were disposed of between January and October last year, making it an average of 3,465 cases a month. In comparison, only urgent cases are being heard by the Supreme Court till lockdown ends. As the pendency is set to rise due to the limited capability that is now caused by the pandemic, along with the expectations set for the future, new technology-supported solutions will need to be thought of as soon as possible. Then how relevant is Artificial Intelligence in the wake of a global pandemic that significantly affects the rate of working and the output generated worldwide?
AI has been used in the legal field for quite some time. Within a few decades, as AI became increasingly dominant in our everyday lives, we have seen a shift in the legal world. Law students and professionals alike moved from reading reports and digests to searching topics online with the help of search engines like Manupatra and SCC online. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have the power to facilitate judges by anticipating critical knowledge about a current case of a similar nature based on previous cases. However, this has also caused unnecessary worry that machine learning will replace human skills by terming them outdated. A transition towards “smart justice” is already being pursued by countries like China that have robots in their courts which aid the judge by retrieving verdicts and past cases and sifting through social media for evidence. Judge’s knowledge and subjectivity is most clearly seen in the decision to grant bail or sentence imprisonment. And here the failings of an AI are also distinct. A human’s strength lies in his empathy, experience and interpersonal skills which cannot be replaced by an automaton (which is) prone to algorithmic and logical biases. Search engines do not understand law, they are not self-learning and generally rely on the “wisdom of the crowds”.
AI technology is no-where near human intelligence, at least as far as general cognitive capacity is concerned. Modern AI does not learn very quickly. However, crowd-sourcing may in the future take an interesting turn and involve many people and machines and platforms working together in real-time to generate data and insights.
As we move more and more towards a world heaving with digital natives (people who grew up with technology), it is only natural that our inclination towards a technology centred society is increasing. Nevertheless, before we take a quantum leap towards the use of Robotic Machinery as an aid in court houses of India, the first hop should be towards digitization of court records and summarization of large volume cases. In the hands of judges, AI can prove itself to be a useful tool which minimizes the need for memorized knowledge and therefore helps law practitioners give primacy to sensibility and prudence. Also, having law summaries readily available will give judges access to relevant information with minimal time lost.
In a meeting held with high court e-committees, Justice DY Chandrachud, Chairman of the E-committee of the Supreme Court, stressed the need to set up virtual courts in all states to deal not only with traffic challans but also with all other summary violations. This is an example of how technology can be used to make the current legal system more efficient. Increasing use of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) along with Justice Informatization allows online platforms to resolve cases without being present in the flesh thus saving time and effort. Many of these disputes are technology caused and resolved. In the fast disposal of pending cases, trial and civil disputes as well as lesser crimes may be resolved through implementation of dispute resolution online.
As of now we cannot trust AI to give decisive evidence in a judgment as it lacks the ability to individualize a case. There is still some way to go in the future before technology can become the judge of good and bad human behaviour and administer punishments in a way that may be accepted by people. Like scientific evidence, it too needs a lot of refinement before we may consider it a significant update or danger to the current legal system. Therefore, for the moment, Artificial Intelligence remains a largely uncharted territory.
Footnotes: WHO Director- General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19, 3 March 2020, WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION, (Mar. 3, 2020) https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---3-march2020#:~:text=COVID%2D19%20causes%20more,%25%20of%20those%20infected.  Jeremy Rossman, Coronavirus: What the 2009 swine flu pandemic can tell us about the weeks to come, THE CONVERSATION (March 24, 2020, 4:42 AM) https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-what-the-2009-swine-flu-pandemic-can-tell-us-about-the-weeks-to-come-134076.  Supreme Court heard 593 matters, delivered verdicts in 215 cases during Covid-19 lockdown, LIVEMINT, (Apr 26, 2020, 5:56 PM), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/supreme-court-heard-593-matters-delivered-verdicts-in-215-cases-during-covid-19-lockdown-11587903690112.html.  Id.  Meaning: The wisdom of the crowd is the process of considering the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question.  Meaning: obtain (information or input into a particular task or project) by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet.  Shay Hershkovitz, When Humans meet AI: The Next Generation of Crowdsourcing, CROWDSOURCING WEEK, (Apr. 19, 2018) https://crowdsourcingweek.com/blog/when-humans-meet-ai-next-generation-crowdsourcing/.  Samanwaya Rautray, Courts embrace tech but CJI’s AI goal still a distant dream, THE ECONOMIC TIMES, (Apr. 11, 2020, 08:17 AM) https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/courts-embrace-tech-but-cjis-ai-goal-still-a-distant-dream/articleshow/75090573.cms.  Informatisation refers to the extent by which a geographical area, an economy or a society is becoming information-based
National Law University, Odisha.