Lawyers have been discussing the use of chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) for some time. To what extent will they change the way we provide advice on divorce and other family law issues?

There’s little doubt that new technology offers family lawyers like us great opportunities to streamline and improve the way we work. But could robots one day actually replace solicitors as some are now predicting?

What Do Chatbots Do?

Essentially chatbots are computer programmes that speak to people over the internet. The technology is always evolving but a group of Cambridge University students has recently developed a product (‘Elexirr’) that is attracting a lot of attention. On their website the students tell us:

“We can predict the correct outcome of a case 71% of the time. We only need a factual and legal description of the problem to make a prediction. Our system works for all common law jurisdictions and all core areas of litigation.”

These are pretty impressive claims. Will they stand up to scrutiny? Well, we’ll soon find out one way of another – the people behind Elexirr have announced a ‘man v machine’ challenge.  A team from the chatbot company will go up against a group of leading London lawyers to see who comes out on top.

Could Chatbots Do The Job Of Family Lawyers?

Elexirr’s creators might say all they need is a factual and legal description of a legal problem to make a reliable case prediction. We are not so sure. It’s difficult to see how even the world’s most robust chatbot could navigate the subtleties of the law relating to divorce, children and financial settlements. Of course as specialist family solicitors we might be expected to be critical of a product that some say could replace us. But here are some very clear reasons why we don’t believe robots will take the place of family lawyers any time soon:

  • Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act sets out a huge range of factors for a judge to take into account when reaching decisions. These include income, financial needs, conduct and living standards. The legislation does not set out any order of priority or say whether some factors have more weight than others. All that is discretionary – it’s the judge’s decision.
  • Judges are guided by previously decided cases, and especially by principles laid down in decisions from the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. A chatbot could conceivably be programmed to follow these. However, even following precedent involves a detailed analysis of how similar the precedent is to the case the judge is dealing with. The facts in everyone’s case are different and may make a difference. It is hard to envisage an algorithm that could allow a chatbot to perform this kind of task.
  • Surveys show that people who use lawyers generally do better than litigants in person. This is because solicitors undertake years of professional training to be able to work out precisely how legal principles are applied to particular facts.
  • The world’s best chatbot is not going to be able to make a firm prediction of what some judge, at some point in the future may decide is the correct decision. Remember, each decision would be based on a set of facts, which may change between the start of the case, and the time the judge makes the decision. Of course the chatbot might be able to produce a range of possible outcomes. But how does this help a client? Lawyers will always be able to go one step further. They first of all work out the range of outcomes. They then actively work to influence the outcome in their client’s favour.

We should welcome and embrace technological advances. And there is no doubting their use in many legal processes and practice areas. But as far as family law goes, where the personal nuances of each case are so great, we think it’s hard to see how chatbots and AI in general can ever play anything other than a secondary role.

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