Why AI Could be Critical in Reducing the Court Backlog

The UK is facing a crisis in its courts.

According to a recent report published by the House of Commons Library, the Crown court had nearly 63,000 outstanding cases at the end of September 2022. In London alone, there were 16,000 outstanding cases in London’s Crown Courts and nearly 73,000 in Magistrates Courts. Experts have suggested that victims of crime in the capital could wait up to five years for a court date.

The subsequent criminal barristers’ strike in the Autumn of last year was indicative of a critically underfunded sector in crisis. All the while, the number of cases awaiting trial is at an all-time high and the volume of evidence in need of review only continues to grow. The UK must urgently consider how next-generation technology like AI can help relieve the pressure currently felt in all parts of the court system. Whilst we are still a long way from Terminator-style robot judges in the courtroom, AI has a very real and tangible role to play in this sector.

Today, nearly every criminal investigation includes a substantial digital evidence component, whether that be texts, WhatsApp messages, emails, internet browser histories, or data from GPS devices and fitness trackers. Research conducted by the University of Exeter in conjunction with the UK police force, found that digital forensics are now used in over 90% of criminal cases.

But our ever-growing digital footprint presents a significant challenge for criminal defence lawyers who now need to review unprecedented volumes of data ahead of trial. Legal teams that fail to thoroughly analyse all this information are at risk of not meeting evidentiary thresholds, as in the case of Liam Allan, where 40,000 text messages were omitted from evidence and caused the case to fall apart at the last minute.

The pandemic may have prompted the UK courts to revise traditional methods of working and embrace new technology, such as video conferencing software for remote trials, but there is still much work to be done. Documents uploaded to the Crown Court Digital Case System (CCDCS), which is provided to instructing counsel in England and Wales, can be difficult to access and review. With only rudimentary search tools, the CCDCS still requires barristers to spend hours combing through mountains of data – a time-consuming and resource-intensive process prone to human error.

In stark contrast, artificial intelligence presents a novel way for lawyers to search and interrogate data. AI can read and understand vast data volumes in a matter of seconds, connecting different words, terms and concepts much in the same way as the human brain does. Using this understanding of language, AI can surface key information in seconds compared to the hours it may take a lawyer manually reviewing page after page of text.

In this way, AI can accelerate and automate the review of potential evidence, helping legal teams quickly identify what is relevant or not, to improve efficiency before a case even arrives in the courtroom. With more time and cost saved, legal teams can move through cases faster and ensure all evidence is brought to light during disclosure.

Recently, AI was deployed for the very first time in a landmark case at The Old Bailey. London barristers’ chambers, The 36 Group, used Luminance’s AI to analyse over 10,000 documents prior to the trial of Rikki Neave, a six-year-old boy who was tragically murdered near his home in Peterborough nearly 30 years ago. By using AI, a 20-person team consisting of barristers, police officers and forensic experts was able to analyse evidence including witness statements and forensic notes, as well as pinpoint all references to key individuals of interest when preparing for cross-examination. As a result, The 36 Group shaved an entire month off their review time, saving £50,000 in costs and ensuring they had constructed a robust defence argument ahead of trial.

The leading barrister for the defence, Sally Hobson, at the time commented: ​“The AI learns what to search for, reads and understands and can surface in hours what would take months to find manually. The lawyers will still make their decisions and the judges would still judge on it, but they will be aided by technology to enhance and accelerate these cases.”

This landmark use of AI at the Old Bailey demonstrates the urgent need for the criminal justice system to move fully into the digital age. Advanced technology has a key role to play in levelling the playing field for criminal defence and prosecution teams, where it is often the case that the prosecution has access to more resource.

AI by no means sounds the death knell for judges, barristers or juries. The role of people in the court system remains an integral part of the judicial process, but AI can serve as an invaluable extension to help process the sheer volume of data generated by criminal cases every day. As questions remain over the funding and future of our courts, embracing AI technology could prove a vital step in beginning to tackle the current crisis.

About the Author

Eleanor Lightbody is CEO of Luminance. Luminance is the world’s most advanced AI technology for the legal processing of contracts and documents. Founded by mathematicians from the University of Cambridge, Luminance’s AI reads and forms a conceptual understanding of documents in any language. Luminance uses this understanding to augment the spectrum of legal matters, from AI-powered contract drafting, negotiation and review to investigations and eDiscovery. Luminance is used by over 500 customers in 60 countries, including all of the Big Four consultancy firms, a quarter of the world’s largest law firms and multinational organisations such as Tesco and Ferrero.


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