16 July 2020

FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty video statement to Access to Justice Conference, 16 July 2020

What are the next steps in the digitalisation of justice and of access to justice? This impulse video statement by FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty was recorded for the online conference “Access to Justice in the Digital Age”. The conference takes place on 16 July and is organised by the German Federal Ministry for Justice and Consumer Protection during the German Council Presidency.

Tech is already being deployed in the justice system. That system is digitalising. We see this in the transposition to the digital space of so many support and administrative functions, in particular those used by judges.

We also have to acknowledge as we go forward that this is a good project. That the digitalisation of justice and of access to justice can transform the experience within the justice system for the good, for the right’s holder, for the citizen. For example, it can speed up justice. It can finally resolve a persistent problem in some Member States. It can also make the judicial system and process more transparent.

But we have to proceed with caution. We have to keep in mind always that technology is not neutral. Technology brings with it, sometimes unavoidably considerable degrees of risk. They can all be managed but we mustn’t overlook them.

For example, technology and in particular the application of Artificial Intelligence will always depend on the quality of the input data. People put the data in the systems. And we know, including from our research that people can and often do make mistakes. Based on problems of the data being input and how it’s valued we can see bias in Artificial Intelligence systems including those that could potentially play a role in the justice sector.

And most recently in the particular context of COVID we’ve seen in the rush to go online with judicial process some challenges. Challenges of equality of arms, of equality between litigants, of the access for some litigants to vital documentation. We’ve also been confronted by challenges to honouring such basic ethical and legal principles as privacy, dignity and respect.

As we proceed it’s important that we recognise that this is not an exclusive European conversation. It’s taking place everywhere in the world.

So let’s bring all of that global experience and practice into play so that we can forge the best possible models here in the European Union. I think it’s also very important to get the best possible models. That we sit down with the technology sector, sit as equals, to work out between us how best to resolve the problems so that we can move forward.

In conclusion, let me say that we must never forget that we’re dealing here with law and I’m referring of course to human and fundamental rights law as a baseline for everything we do, every decision we take, every application and step that we develop. It’s vital that we respect all of the relevant provisions of human and fundamental rights as applicable online as offline.