15 October 2018

Chief justice tells 'lukewarm' legal profession to step up on legal tech

Once leaders, the Singapore legal profession has been 'lukewarm' and moving backwards, but needs to regain its edge in legal tech says CJ.

Singapore needs the legal profession to step up in legal tech, according to Singapore chief justice Sundaresh Menon. Mr Menon, who is president of the Singapore Academy of Law, is the first Singaporean to deliver the academy’s annual lecture.

Lukewarm response

The academy, which brings together lawyers, judges, academics and legal service officers, and was created in 1988 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Mr Menanon, said ‘regrettably, our response to legal technology has been lukewarm.’ He also addressed internationalisation of legal practice and explained, ‘historically, our profession has met globalisation with resistance. In 1980, when the Government decided to allow foreign firms to practise in Singapore, the Law Society presented its objections to the minister for law, anxiously reminding the authorities of “their duty not to demoralise the local Bar.” Such was the anxiety that an audience was even sought with the Prime Minister!’ He suggested the profession needs to have bigger ambitions and take the opportunity to advance the regional rule of law by promoting a rules-based order and the convergence of Asian business law.

Moving backwards

On legal technology, he said ‘in short, to stand still is to move backwards. Worryingly, however, it appears that this is just what is happening. Artificial intelligence assisted transcription, two-way translations facilitated by technology, and virtual courts feature prominently in some Chinese courts. However, we are some way from implementing these in our courts. We were once world leaders in legal technology, but that is no longer so.’ A 2017 study by the Law Society found that just 9% of small and medium-sized Singapore law practices used technology-enabled productivity tools, let alone artificial intelligence software. Mr Menon argued, ‘a large part of the answer is education.’ However unlike the US, ‘by contrast, there is presently limited collaboration between the legal profession and major research institutions in Singapore.’ He concluded optimistically, ‘to the pessimists, therefore, I say this: we have been here before, and overcame; we are here again, and shall overcome, provided we summon a new spirit of unity, honour and service, and rededicate ourselves to the cause of justice.’