Keep AI away from the Family Court (and Johnny Cash)

With speculation and prediction gathering pace on the subject of the introduction of AI into the legal world, what is the future of our corner of the profession?

If ever there was a warning of the dangers of Artificial Intelligence, it was when I came across an AI-generated cover of American Country singer Johnny Cash, performing the song “Barbie Girl”. But it did get me thinking about the potential impact of AI on the legal profession, especially in family law.

Falling down an online rabbit hole, I learned about the Estonian Ministry of Justice piloting AI software that hears and decides small claims of under €7,000; the world’s first “robot lawyer” called “DoNotPay”, that successfully appealed 160,000 of 250,000 (that’s 64%) of parking tickets in London before its second anniversary; and how the Supreme People’s Court in China has been using an AI judge since 2017.

At a Law and Technology conference in June, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, supported the use of AI, but only in low-level civil cases. When considering family law, Sir Geoffrey’s said: “There are some decisions – like, for example, intensely personal decisions relating to the welfare of children – that humans are unlikely ever to accept being decided by machines.”

Encouraged by these words, I put the question to my connections on LinkedIn. The results of a poll I created asking if AI should be used to resolve matters involving children or finances were as follows: a majority of 71% stated neither, but 24% did feel comfortable with its use in financial matters. Though far from conclusive, is this a sign of things to come? Will we feel comfortable handing low-value and purely financial cases to a robotic judge?

What about the profession? Lawyers in the US with a personal injury case against an airline were recently forced to admit to using ChatGPT when opposing counsel could not find six of the cases cited in the legal brief. It turned out they were fiction. At the disciplinary hearing, the lawyers’ defence was that they were not aware the information from ChatGPT could be false.

In the area of family law, AI may have a place analysing financial documents such as bank statements, looking for irregularities or suspicious transactions, or generating financial proposals by undertaking calculations using matrimonial assets. But without empathy, sensitivity and nuance, how can it provide a satisfactory outcome?

I decided to put the question to the accused. I asked ChatGPT “Should AI be used to decide family court cases?” The response was certainly one that sounded very impressive:

“Deciding family court cases involves complex and sensitive matters that often require consideration of personal circumstances, emotions, and the well-being of individuals involved. While AI can assist in analysing data and providing insights, it should not be solely relied upon to make decisions in family court cases.”

However …

“AI can still be used as a supportive tool in family court cases. It can help with tasks such as organizing and analysing relevant data, identifying patterns in past cases, and providing recommendations based on legal principles and guidelines. This can assist Judges in making more informed decisions.”

And you know what? I found it hard to disagree. People who come to see a family lawyer are often going through highly emotive, distressing personal matters and are in need of calm, gentle and kind reassurance before even getting to their legal situation.

I, myself, have found great reassurance in the unanimous agreement, including from AI itself, that Artificial Intelligence has no business deciding cases in the Family Court. It should also be kept away from the work of music legend Johnny Cash!