Trial by laptop

April 25, 2000

An electronic judge on wheels delivers instant justice

There's been a minor car crunch on a city street in Brazil, and the two drivers are screaming and gesticulating, arguing angrily over who's to blame and who should pay for the damage. Suddenly, a van screeches to a halt and out pop a judge, a court clerk and a very special laptop computer. Instant justice has arrived, cyber-style.

This is no fantasy. The laptop runs an artificial-intelligence program called the Electronic Judge, and its job is to help the human judge on the team swiftly and methodically dispense justice according to witness reports and forensic evidence at the scene of an incident. It can issue on-the-spot fines, order damages to be paid and even recommend jail sentences.

The software is being tested by three judges in the state of Espirito Santo. It forms part of a scheme called Justice-on-Wheels, which is designed to speed up Brazil's overloaded legal system by dealing immediately with straightforward cases.

The idea is not to replace judges but to make them more efficient, says Pedro Valls Feu Rosa, a judge in the state's Supreme Court of Appeals who developed the program. He was in Britain last week reporting on the project at a conference in Birmingham on AI and simulated behaviour.

After police alert the rapid justice team to minor accidents, they can be on the scene within ten minutes. Most cases require only simple questions and no interpretation of the law-the decision-making process is purely logical, Feu Rosa claims.

A keen programmer, Feu Rosa wrote the E-Judge program in the Visual Basic language. It presents the judge with multiple choice questions, such as "Did the driver stop at the red light?" or "Had the driver been drinking alcohol above the acceptable limit of the law?"

These are the sorts of questions that human judges are normally expected to answer, based on evidence from the scene, says Feu Rosa, and they only need yes or no answers. "If we are concerned with nothing more than pure logic, then why not give the task to a computer?"

Most people are happy to have the matter sorted out on the spot, he says. The program gives more than a mere judgment: it also prints out its reasoning. If the human judge disagrees with the decision it can simply be overruled, says Feu Rosa. He admits, however, that some people who have been judged by the program don't realise that they've been tried by software.

There are also advantages to being on location, says Feu Rosa. The judge can see if witnesses had a clear view and, perhaps, check the vehicles' tyre marks. The system saves months of expensive wrangling in the courts, he says. "I know that this is a little bit different, but it works."

It could be some time before a similar system takes the place of an English court. "It would have to satisfy the authorities that it was absolutely foolproof first," says a spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's office, which oversees courts in England and Wales. But it could be put to use in the US, where Feu Rosa says he is in discussion with insurance companies to set up a mobile system to resolve disputes over traffic accidents.
Reporter: Duncan Graham-Rowe

New Scientist issue: 29th April 2000

New Scientist

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