It is 11am on Monday the 17th of September 2035, at the offices of Messrs. Inn & Ovation, Solicitors. Mrs Beyoncé Smith arrives for her appointment. She has come to instruct Inn & Ovation to commence divorce proceedings against her husband, Jay Smith.
The front door of the office slides smoothly open as she approaches. “Welcome, Mrs Smith.” Says a robotic voice. “Please proceed to instruction cubicle number seven, where one of our friendly Auto-DivorceTM Computers will take all of your details…”
Well, maybe it’ll be something like that. Or maybe not. An article that appeared on the BBC website the other day got me wondering whether, in the foreseeable future, machines might replace human family lawyers.
The article looks at the likelihood that various jobs could be automated within the next twenty years, according to a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte. The article considers 366 different jobs and indicates how susceptible each is to automation, based on nine key skills required to perform it: social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others, originality, fine arts, finger dexterity, manual dexterity and the need to work in a cramped work space.
The job most at risk of automation is telephone salesperson, with a 99% likelihood of automation within the next twenty years. Solicitors are at the other end of the scale, with only a 3% risk of automation.
That result may be greeted with a sigh of relief by many solicitors, but how accurate really is it? The article doesn’t differentiate between the different types of work that solicitors do. Is it possible that family law, or at least parts of it, might be suitable for automation?
I remember way back in the 1980s as computers were just becoming cheaply available, there was great optimism as to what they might be capable of doing. Enthused by that optimism I purchased some ‘expert system’ software for my old Amstrad PCW 8256. My (rather naïve) idea was that as law is basically just a set of rules, if those rules were input into the expert system, the system could ‘calculate’ the result of any legal problem – i.e. provide advice upon that problem.
I didn’t get very far. The simple fact of the matter is that family law problems are generally far too complex to be reduced to a simple set of rules that produce a clear solution on the other side of the equals sign. Can you imagine, for example, a system that decides with which parent a child should reside after her parents split up? The mere idea is absurd, not to mention abhorrent.
There is, however, one area of family law that has been ‘automated’ since my efforts long ago: child support. Ever since the Child Support Act came into force computer programs have been available that will calculate the amount that the non-resident parent (or whatever they are called) must pay.
But that is the exception. There have, over the years, been a number of efforts to come up with a formulaic system to sort out the rest of financial settlements on divorce, but all have come to naught. Again, there are just too many variables, even for the most enthusiastic programmer to contemplate. The only thing that works is a system based upon judicial discretion, and how do you write that into a computer program? It might happen in some distant future, but within twenty years? Doubtful.
But family law is, of course, about far more than just advising upon outcomes. It is about listening, about empathy, about caring, about negotiating, about being creative and other skills. Surely, no machine is likely to be able to emulate such skills for some considerable time to come?
Computers have, of course, become an indispensable tool for all lawyers since my efforts on the old Amstrad, and not just for calculating child support. They also look after word processing, precedents, forms, accounts, knowledge and other things. They have undoubtedly made the business of the family lawyer easier and more efficient, but they are still a very long way away from replacing him or her, even assuming that the clients would want that.