As time progresses, technology advances. Information about the law is now readily accessible to everyone due to the advent of technology, specifically the Internet. People can now access and read judgments from different courts, news reports of cases, constitutions and other laws, as well as case notes and opinions published by various law firms. The advantages of the internet, including access to information about the law, are numerous and well known. However, this article questions if this availability of information may be, as Shakespeare once said, “too much of a good thing.”
News reports can be misleading – public interest vs self-interest.
Traditional media outlets usually report on cases from the court; these articles are also usually published online. The benefit of having media professionals cover cases dealing with matters of public importance is indisputable. This is in the public’s interest and is a hallmark of a modern democracy. However, journalists are only human and are subject to error; they may misconstrue or confuse facts or legal concepts. Worse still, if no journalist covers the story a “citizen journalist” may use social media to “feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality”. Either situation would result in the public being given imperfect legal information.
Not to mention the troubles of prejudicial reporting, which has had a detrimental effect on numerous cases, including some notable high-profile cases. The more connected we are to information, the harder it becomes to ensure that jurors avoid seeing and reading things which may be prejudicial to the case they are hearing; as a result of this, there is a suggestion that the most appropriate course of action is for judges to remind juries that they are required to try cases only on the evidence they hear in court, and why.
Additionally, non-traditional media commentators, such as ‘arm-chair lawyers’ on social media platforms, have sprung up in abundance. These individuals comment and report on legal issues and cases under the guise of reportage. No doubt they’re exercising their rights to free speech and wish to make their views known − after reading about the law online. Unfortunately, their views are usually skewed because of a misunderstanding of the law due to the risks of those views being developed through the incomplete legal information found online. Further, most of these ‘arm-chair lawyers’ generally choose to report only on legal issues that would generate “hits” on their blog. Thus, they serve their own interests, rather than the interests of the public. This also occurs with traditional and established news outlets. Contrary to investigative journalism, this method of reporting is more likely to be detrimental to the public who may subsequently use this potentially biased and unreliable information.
When legal information is incorrect, or inappropriately used, time and money can be wasted.
As mentioned above, a member of the public may use information accessed online to facilitate an agenda. What this agenda is depends on the circumstances; for example, a juror in North Carolina was recently held in contempt of court after conducting their own legal research online and attempting to persuade other jurors of a particular view. In this instance, it was old North Carolina law that the juror had been using. The judge ruled for a mistrial of that particular high-profile case.
There also are other instances of jurors using the internet to research legal terms as well, causing problems for the trial they were hearing and leading to punishment for the juror themselves. This is a concern, as a recent study shows that at least 6% of jurors in the UK research legal terms used in the case. The moral here is that legal information online may not be up-to-date and more must be done to protect and educate jurors, as they are not lawfully allowed to use the internet to research legal terms and material. The court functions on public funds and when jurors use the internet to research legal terms, mistrials could occur as a result. The time of judges, court officials and staff ought to be put to proper use, so as to avoid that time, and the public funds involved, being wasted.
Another problematic scenario is that a person, armed with basic legal knowledge from the internet, may decide to represent themselves in litigation, either to file or defend a claim; in doing so they can create severe problems. This is because a layperson would more than likely misunderstand the rules or obligations imposed by the legal and justice system. They may not be aware of timelines and sanctions for failure to comply with rules. Moreover, the attorney that eventually represents them would now face what could be one of the “biggest challenges” for any attorney, since the attorney now has to pull the individual out of a self-dug hole. This wastes time and resources. If the client is an impecunious person and needs an attorney to ‘rescue’ them, then the attorney now has to consider if they have the resources to allocate for pro bono services. If not, the individual may be left with the feeling of resentment that ‘the justice system has failed them.’ This scenario could be avoided if people approach an attorney initially, instead of wading into the deep waters on their own.
Law firms must adapt to modernity or be assimilated.
Law firms also now have to compete against new emerging technologies which, in addition to providing free legal information, provide cheaper alternatives to the public. As Monica Goyal, founder of My Legal Briefcase said, “technology has potential to make legal serves more affordable for more people.” In the Netherlands for example, there is Justice42, which is an online dispute resolution system. Justice42 aims to reduce the need for attorneys and to save the public high legal fees in dealing with certain matters like divorces.
Further, startup companies like Lexoo act as a de facto clerk to attorneys. Lexoo is an online platform providing a connection between a potential client and a wide variety of ex-city attorneys. Such a platform enables these potential clients to receive free quotes on works likely to arise from facts they submit online. Thus, the client can then make a conscious, non-pressured choice about which attorney to pick, based on the quotes received.
According to The Action Group, there are also companies online which unbundle legal services. This is useful for a client since the work is divided up between different attorneys – even to those in other jurisdictions. It means lower fees for clients rather than a sole attorney handling all issues relating to a legal matter. Ergo, the Internet has increased the public’s ease of access to legal information through increasing the scope for competition between sole practitioners and law firms, giving clients more cost viable options.
Indeed, there is now even a ‘robot lawyer’ giving free legal advice to refugees, in the form of a chatbot, which uses Facebook’s Messenger to carry out its advice functions.
In some places today, as many as one in four persons use the Internet to access legal information. As technology continues to evolve, the pros and cons of the Internet continue to be seen and felt. More studies and empirical research should be conducted, especially as it pertains to the impact on jurors. People should be alerted as to what legal aid options may be available to them, rather than them taking matters into their own hands. Until then, the public’s ease of access to legal information, with all of its merits and flaws, won’t be curbed soon − at least not until attorneys and eventually judges are at risk of being otiose.
Written by Mukta Balroop
Mukta Balroop is a contributing author for Justis Publishing, specialising in Caribbean interests. Mukta graduated with an LL.B. (Hons) from the University of West Indies in 2012, where he went on to gain experience as an In-house counsel member at Tharuna Limited, and then joined the Judicial Research Counsel in the Court of Appeal for the Judiciary of Trinidad & Tobago. Recently Mukta received the prestigious Chevening Scholarship – the UK government’s global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations – to study for an LL.M. at Queen Mary, University of London, majoring in Media Law.
Mukta has also worked for the Judicial Education Institute of Trinidad & Tobago and Hobsons Notaries Public and Trademark & Patent Agents, Attorneys-at-Law. Mukta was the overall winner at the Price Media Law Moot Court Competition Americas regional round in New York, also winning the prize for Best Oralist of the Finals. He progressed to the quarter finals at the international round of the same competition, at University of Oxford, and was distinguished as the Best Oralist Runner Up overall. Mukta has also won the Justice Jessel Hannays Memorial Prize for the highest score in Law of Remedies at the Hugh Wooding Law School.