The Irish Bar, Magna Carta and the Future of Law

(thanks to Irish show bands)

I was asked to speak to the Irish Criminal Bar Association last week in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Why not, I thought, I've given around twenty talks this academic year. One more is fine. It meant I would see the new criminal courts in Dublin, designed by Henry J. Lyons.

We were two speakers, a Senior Counsel on what Magna Carta meant, and me on the future of law for lawyers in the cyber age. Those of you who've read Maeve Hosier's book, The Regulation of the Legal Profession in Ireland, will know the Irish Bar is best characterised as conservative. The King's Inns' (where barristers are trained) motto is Nolumus Mutari--we do not wish to be changed.

I started with the observation that Magna Carta, for all its virtues, was a treaty between the king and barons, not the common man. Instead a better commemoration would be the Charter of the Forest of 1217 under Henry III which opened up the Royal Forests to the common man for cultivation and foraging and grazing. The Charter also established Special Verderers Courts to enforce the forest laws.

From there to the 21st century where mainly focused on the delivery of online "law" in its different forms. Their benefits I argued are the democratisation of law, the reduction of information asymmetries in professional-client relationships, and the empowering of individuals. Which means a different role for lawyers. I don't think my audience was overwhelmed by my vision.

The examples I used were, eBay's former online dispute resolution system, which is now working on online divorce resolution and neighbourhood dispute resolution in the Netherlands, and property tax assessment appeals in Canada. I ventured that small criminal case courts could use this technology to sentence accused by algorithm without their having to appear in court--a seeming inefficient use of lawyers' time where most cases plead out.

I shifted to IBM's excursions into data analytics and their use in professional services, notably medicine. The instance which really intrigues me, however, is IBM Cognitive Cooking, where you pick an ingredient and a region and out pops a recipe.

(thanks to IBM)

Why shouldn't law be as inventive as IBM's Cognitive Cooking? Corcoran gives examples of in house counsel using big data and predictive analytics to deal with problems like product recalls and tricky mergers and acquisitions. Ireland is already thinking about these issues with the Programmable City project at Maynooth University. Of course there is a need for skilled legal judgment outwith the algorithm. My audience wasn't enamoured of this prospect.

I gave them a run through of some of the innovations in legal provision including LegalZoom, Radiant Law, and (I think this last caused the most consternation). The new "agile" legal providers such as Lawyers on Demand and Axiom were clear interlopers.

As a result of being bailed out by the EU, ECB and the IMF, Ireland agreed to a reform of legal services which resulted in the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011. The legal profession, true to that motto, has resisted and rebuffed, and the bill has yet to be passed. The originating Minister of Justice has fallen by the wayside, as politicians do. The new one seems to have been well house trained by the legal profession and the bill is weaker than at the start.

Perhaps cyber law will not be so welcome yet in Ireland but the country still has a big problem with inadequate access to justice and diminishing legal aid isn't about to become fruitful. The legal profession exercises a tight monopoly which needs breaking.

Time for a new charter.......?