Many legal issues in China are handled by artificial intelligence. Although it simplifies the process for minor claims and misdemeanours, there are reservations about automating complex cases.
China continues to invest heavily in the development of artificial intelligence, which will have a greater impact on everyday life and state functions. Even Chinese courts are now using AI to help them make legal decisions.
In 2019, a court in Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai, began using AI. Xiao Zhi 3.0, or “Little Wisdom,” the judge’s assistant programme, first assisted in a trial of ten people who had failed to repay bank loans.
Previously, resolving the issue would have required 10 separate trials, but with Xiao Zhi 3.0, all cases were resolved in one hearing with one judge, and a decision was available in just 30 minutes.
Initially, Xiao Zhi 3.0 took over mundane tasks like announcing court procedures during hearings.
Now, voice recognition technology is used to record testimony, analyse case materials, and verify information from databases in real time.
Xiao Zhi 3.0 is primarily used in simple financial disputes. However, a court in Suzhou has used similar technology to settle traffic-related disputes. The judge’s time was saved because AI examined the evidence and wrote the verdicts.
Another legal AI platform used by judges and prosecutors in criminal law is the Xiao Baogong Intelligent Sentencing Prediction System.
Based on big data analysis of case information and prior judgements from similar cases, the system can recommend penalties.
“I can see the temptation for Chinese courts to use AI even in criminal cases. Ensure uniformity is one of the challenges for Chinese criminal justice. “They want to ensure that the penalties are consistent across different regions of China,” Shitong Qiao, a law professor at Duke Law School in the United States, told DW.
However, Zhiyu Li, an assistant professor of law and policy at Durham University, believes that using AI to assist with more complicated legal decisions raises ethical concerns because a decision based on AI calculations may be deemed more credible than a decision made by a human.
“While judges and prosecutors have the freedom to ignore or reject these suggestions for criminal punishments, we don’t know if they may sway their decision-making unconsciously due to cognitive biases,” Li told DW.
Putting the law in the hands of tech companies?
AI-based solutions are mostly used to optimise legal databases and make them more accessible to both professionals and the general public around the world.
Smartsettle ONE, a negotiation app in Canada, resolved a three-month dispute over unpaid fees in less than an hour.
The parties were required to move flags on a screen to indicate potential areas for compromise. The application then used bidding tactics to nudge stakeholders into settlement without disclosing their hidden bids.
However, only a few countries are currently prepared to take AI in legal matters to the next level.
In 2019, France prohibited the development of AI-based predictive litigation. One reason was to avoid commercialization of judicial decision-making data, as courts lack the capacity to develop AI on their own.
Private technology firms would be hired to handle the process. For example, Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce corporation and one of the world’s largest technology companies, took part in the development of AI for online transaction disputes.
“These companies’ motivations must differ from those of public institutions. The process must be held accountable. Making certain that the data is not skewed and that the algorithms are fair is a fundamental challenge that not only for China but for the whole world,” said legal expert Shitong.
The limits of automated law
Smartphones can be used in China to file a complaint, track the progress of a case, and communicate with judges.
Artificial intelligence-based automated machines found in so-called “one-stop” stations provide legal consultations, register cases, and generate legal documents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can even compute legal fees. However, there is some disagreement about the dependability of the information provided by these automated lawyers. The machines are said to take into account material, emotional, and time costs in cases and provide users with calculated information on predicting the outcome. The limitation is that automation can miss nuances and lead to incorrect decisions.
“Based on the results of our interviews, some disputants were quite sceptical about the reliability and usefulness of the machine-generated predictions,” said legal expert Zhiyu.
Another issue is that AI systems make decisions based on an incomplete public record, which is due to China’s uneven digitization of its regions.
Following public outrage over what was perceived as inadequate punishments meted out to the alleged perpetrators, some contentious cases were removed from the government database China Judgements Online. This has raised questions about whether AI can make unbiased decisions based on fragmented data.
“I believe it is both a Chinese and a global problem to make the best use of AI while also ensuring accountability. Because AI decision-making is a black box, even judges do not understand it. “It will be much more difficult for individual citizens to hold judges and government officials accountable with AI,” Qiao predicted.