Reasonable Doubt

A.I. Judges: The Future of Justice Hangs in the Balance

Automation is creeping into the courtroom, and it’s going to change the way we think about the law

Thomas McMullan
Published in
6 min readFeb 14, 2019
Illustration: Robert Beatty

InIn 1970, Lyudmila Terentyevna Aleksandrova lost her right hand. It happened at work, where she was employed by the Russian state. With her hand gone, she fought for a disability allowance that never materialized, batted about by district and regional courts. Eventually, after decades of frustration, she brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2007 that there had been a violation in Aleksandrova’s right to a fair trial. Pay the money, it told Russia.

A judgment about Aleksandrova and her missing right hand was also made in 2016 — not by a human, but by an artificial intelligence. It read the legal document, word for word, and thought about which way it should rule. It also read 583 other cases, all from the European Court of Human Rights. It came to the same conclusion as the human judge: that Russia had violated Aleksandrova’s human rights.

A ‘bag of words’

This A.I. exercise was part of an experiment. A team of computer scientists from University College London had developed a system to accurately predict the outcome of real-life human rights cases. They trained a machine-learning algorithm on a set of court decisions around torture, privacy, and degrading treatment, viewing each legal document as a “bag of words” to be analyzed.

“Let’s say you want to do sentiment analysis on a movie review,” Nikolaos Aletras, one of the authors of the study, tells me. “As humans, what we basically do is read it [and make a judgment]. If you wanted to make that more abstract, you could count how many positive and negative words there are in the text and then decide. If I have more positive words than negative words, then this review might be positive.”

Their work suggests that, given enough data, machines can forecast legal decisions.

“We apply the same techniques on legal texts,” Aletras adds. “By looking into past cases, we learn the importance of particular words in a case.” Once…



Thomas McMullan

Freelance writer | @BBCNews @guardian @frieze_magazine @SightSoundmag @wiredUK @TheTLS others | Also @GardensBritish | Rep’d by @harriet__moore | Novel coming