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Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. Source: Supreme Court of Singapore

Globalisation and AI contribute to “wicked problem” surrounding the rapidly evolving legal landscape in Singapore: Sundaresh Menon CJ

In what he dubbed as a "wicked problem", The Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon predicted that the merging of three significant forces, namely globalisation, technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and "the growing commercialisation of the law" will continue to pose new challenges to lawyers and the legal profession itself in Singapore.

The term "wicked problem", said Mr Menon in his opening address at the opening of the 2019 legal year on Monday (7 Jan), "was coined by design theorists in the 1970s to describe conundrums that arise from multiple causes, and which involve numerous and diverse moving parts."

"By their very nature, “wicked problems” cannot readily be solved by conventional straight-line thinking or single-actor one-shot solutions," he added.

In tandem with the "multifarious" challenges posed by the rapidly evolving legal landscape in the Republic, Mr Menon stressed that a "multi-pronged" approach in overcoming such challenges is crucial.

"No single entity – neither the Judiciary, the Bar, the Academy nor the Government – has a monopoly on wisdom; nor can any one of them, acting alone, devise an all-encompassing response to these issues," said Mr Menon.

He went on to suggest several solutions to the "wicked problem" in his response, namely a legal education that transcends legal knowledge alone, better legal training, and an equally technologically-literate judiciary.

"Law schools may need to do more than educate students in the law"

"Today, successful lawyering requires far more than just the knowledge of the law. It demands competencies commonly associated with other disciplines, ranging from business and finance to project management and information technology.

"Consequently, law schools may need to do more than educate students in the law; they may also need to offer programmes that will equip students with the skills to find innovative solutions to the issues that they will be confronted with in contemporary legal practice," said Mr Menon.

However, he added that "as the very bedrock of the industry shifts, the question of how best to educate the future generation emerges as a complex and dynamic one, and it cannot be answered by law schools alone".

Current professional training for lawyers "only scratch the surface of what can and must be done"

Mr Menon also anticipated the potential adverse effects technological advancements in the legal profession could pose against junior lawyers in certain areas of their work such as legal research and document review, as such tasks "will increasingly be shared with or even taken over by technology and alternative legal service providers."

"As credible and cheaper options are made available by alternative service providers, clients may rely less on lawyers for general tasks such as document review or project management. This is already happening.

"Legal technology companies in other jurisdictions have begun to offer document preparation services at considerably lower costs, often bypassing lawyers altogether. Indeed, this is part of a broader trend of the disaggregation and commoditisation of legal services, and it has been aided by the democratisation of information and knowledge about the law.

"In time to come, it is conceivable that we may see the emergence of a class of “legal technicians” who, though not legally trained, may be able to provide services on a range of less complex legal tasks with the assistance of technology. This is already happening in parts of the United States and Canada," said Mr Menon.

"The diminishing demand for legal representation in low-value or less-complex cases will also restrict the opportunities available for junior lawyers to hone their skills, thus affecting their professional development," he warned.

As of last October, said Mr Menon, the managing partners of 21 law firms have pledged "to increase advocacy opportunities for young lawyers".

"Thereafter, the Supreme Court Practice Directions were amended to stipulate certain roles for junior counsel at all civil trials unless otherwise ordered by the court.

"In the same vein, the Academy has introduced initiatives under the auspices of the Legal Industry Framework for Training and Education and the Future Law Innovation Programme to support the upgrading of the profession’s skills and capabilities," noted Mr Menon.

However, Mr Menon highlighted that while such initiatives regarding professional development for lawyers are "laudable", they "only scratch the surface of what can and must be done", as the three forces he had outlined earlier "will overturn many of our long-cherished notions about how lawyers should be trained and how law firms should operate".

"We cannot be content with piecemeal and modest efforts; instead, we must reimagine new and creative ways by which we may raise our professional standards and skills in the current milieu," he added.

The Judiciary not spared from changes brought about by external forces of globalisation, technology, and increasing commercialisation of the law

Mr Menon also stressed the need for the Judiciary to keep up with changes brought about by the three external forces, and to adequately equip itself with the mechanisms to tackle challenges as a result of the "wicked problem".

"Just as the profession must adapt to change, the Judiciary, too, cannot stand still," he said.

Mr Menon noted that currently, "the Courts of the Future Taskforce has embarked on a number of initiatives to develop self-help solutions for litigants, devise technology solutions for the efficient administration of justice, and adopt the intelligent use of data" over the last two years.

"One example of these efforts is the development of an online dispute resolution platform for motor accident claims. This will comprise an outcome predictor or simulator as well as a facility for mediation and settlement.

"The aim is to enable members of the public to resolve motor accident disputes online, very likely at much lower cost. The contract to develop this platform was awarded in November last year, and the project team has intensified its work with a view to launching the platform in phases, possibly beginning from the end of this year," he said.

Mr Menon added that "an Office of Transformation and Innovation, led by Justice Aedit Abdullah, has been established to coordinate and drive transformative change throughout the entire Judiciary".

"It has been mandated to devise new and innovative approaches to the Judiciary’s work, and will look into, among other things, improving processes, reducing paperwork and physical meetings, making better use of data, embracing innovative ideas and exploiting emerging technologies," he said.

Mr Menon added that "the Office will seek input and feedback from relevant stakeholders, including the Bar".

"I am confident this will place us in a better position to meet the needs of the public," said the Chief Justice.

While Mr Menon did not deny that "the process of deep change will be difficult, even painful, for it will require us to step outside the confines of the familiar and the comfortable, and to make sacrifices for the future," he believes that "it will only be by doing so that we might ensure the continuing relevance of our profession to the needs of this age".