US chief justice warns of AI ‘dehumanising the law’

2 Jan 2024

US chief justice John Roberts in 2021. Image: Carlos M Vazquez II/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Roberts said AI can boost access to legal information, but highlighted the risks of hallucinations and the importance of ‘nuance’ in legal cases.

John Roberts, the US supreme court’s chief justice, has raised concerns about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the legal system.

In his end-of-year report, Roberts described AI as the “latest technological frontier” and said it could boost access to legal information and improve legal research. But he also said that it risks “invading privacy interests and dehumanising the law”.

“Some legal scholars have raised concerns about whether entering confidential information into an AI tool might compromise later attempts to invoke legal privileges,” Roberts said. “In criminal cases, the use of AI in assessing flight risk, recidivism and other largely discretionary decisions that involve predictions has generated concerns about due process, reliability and potential bias.”

Roberts also noted the risk of “hallucinations” – where an AI model makes a mistake and shares false information on a topic. Michael Cohen – the former attorney for Donald Trump when he was US president – recently admitted to using fake legal citations that were generated by AI.

The chief justice of the US also spoke about the importance of nuance in legal cases and the constant “grey areas” that exist in legal decisions.

“Many appellate decisions turn on whether a lower court has abused its discretion, a standard that by its nature involves fact-specific gray areas,” Roberts said. “Others focus on open questions about how the law should develop in new areas. AI is based largely on existing information, which can inform but not make such decisions.”

But while Roberts highlighted the risks of using AI in the legal system, he also noted its potential to increase access to legal information, particularly for those with “limited resources”.

“For those who cannot afford a lawyer, AI can help,” Roberts said. “It drives new, highly accessible tools that provide answers to basic questions, including where to find templates and court forms, how to fill them out and where to bring them for presentation to the judge – all without leaving home.

“These tools have the welcome potential to smooth out any mismatch between available resources and urgent needs in our court system.”

In 2022, Irish start-up Johnson Hana spoke to about its work as a an alternative legal services provider. This company claimed it could reduce the legal spend of its clients by up to 50pc using a combination of lawyers, its platform and AI.

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US chief justice John Roberts in 2021. Image: Carlos M Vazquez II via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic