Dubai moves to disrupt legal culture with future courts

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent, Cairo

It’s not every day a court adopts the lingo of disruption more often associated with Silicon Valley start-ups. It’s even more surprising in the often stagnant and restrictive Middle East. But the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is launching ambitious plans to set up the first ‘Court of the Future’, a model whose proponents say will forever change the way commercial courts do business.

‘Courts have not been disruptive. We need a disruptive court,’ says Mark Beer, Chief Executive and Registrar General of the DIFC Courts. ‘We’ve got to break free from the atmosphere that we live in thinking that what we designed 200 years ago is right for today or right for tomorrow.’

What Dubai wants to do is combine the use of extensive technology to deliver justice more efficiently with pioneering court decisions that deal with commercial disputes arising from new, and often largely untested, technology.

The final shape of the court is yet to be finalised. But the city-state of Dubai is brandishing its business-friendly credentials to ask for ground-breaking ideas that may help put a form to the ambition through an open-source forum. Consultations are being solicited from lawyers, technicians and entrepreneurs.

The 15 members of the Court of the Future are due to meet to review the body of information they collected. They will then share the results with other international courts.

Automation can help create efficiencies, but judicial or tribunal decision-making in the hands of artificial systems raises significant issues

Dale C Van Demark
Vice-Chair of the IBA’s Intrusive Technologies Subcommittee

By leading internationally, the image-conscious nation hopes to bolster its ranking in the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index over the next four years and take stock from billions in new government investments that will go to innovation in the Arab emirate.

‘The young nation is doing what young people do, which is use the technology smartly, not regionally but internationally, creating the courts of the future,’ says Diana Hamade, a Dubai-based officer with the IBA’s Arab Regional Forum. ‘Things have changed dramatically in such a record time, and the future courts will deal with what the commercial law now has to deal with, online commercial disputes and technology disputes.’

The effort is happening against a background of a much wider government-funded push to turn the UAE into an innovation hub with hundreds of millions of dollars in investments coming from the government. Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the UAE, recently said it’s revamping itself as a global venue of future innovations and hopes to complete its transformation by 2020. ‘We have been launching tech initiatives in Dubai and lots of money has been invested. The courts will not be the first and I personally see the value,’ says Hamade, who sits on some panels on the DIFC court.

The country has hired Microsoft to set up technology infrastructure in areas like registrations, filings, case management, and even trials. The aim will be for commercial dispute resolution to keep pace with a new ‘digitized, connected and virtual world.’ According to the plan, court services, for example, can be ordered through social media or e-messaging platforms. Hearings will be held remotely, with video links to plaintiffs, witnesses and even police officers.

More than anything else, proponents of the court aim for it to be recognised by international companies as the main setting for resolving issues posed by new innovations. Potential disputes as to who is liable for decisions made by Artificial Intelligence and robotics applications will come under the court's jurisdiction. The court will answer questions arising from technology handling due diligence and will rule on liability in 3D products and regulations for the use of Unmanned Systems such as drones and driverless cars, as well as blockchain and its uncertain implications on legacy businesses. Dubai says it wants to put all its public documents on blockchain by 2020 and is likely to face legal questions as it does so.

Reports of the project have generated enthusiasm locally and internationally. ‘The Courts of the Future Forum is a forward-looking effort to ensure the court system is prepared to address issues raised by the development of new technologies,’ says Dale C Van Demark, Vice-Chair of the IBA’s Intrusive Technologies Subcommittee. ‘If effective, this should result in greater certainty for business and the legal community that the court system will effectively evaluate these issues.’

Experts acknowledge that the plan raises interesting questions such as how justice will be defined where technology has been fully deployed to resolve disputes. The same concern stands with ‘integrity’ – a concept held dear by most people in the legal profession – and whether one could practically codify ‘integrity’ in technology.

Diana Hamade of the Arab Regional Forum says humans will still be the real power behind the system. ‘Technology will provide the system but again it is humans who will feed it the rules and procedures to apply it,’ she said. ‘Same goes for integrity, and you know what, I think systems may have the integrity better than many judges if it is fed the info properly.’

Van Demark tells Global Insight it was important to make a distinction between competence and speed that technology can bring on the one hand, and legal decision making by technology on the other. ‘Automation can help create efficiencies, but judicial or tribunal decision-making in the hands of artificial systems raises significant issues – the comfort we, as individuals, have in referring decisions to automated systems; the quality of the systems, considering the data that they use or have access to; and the ability to ‘check’ those systems,’ he says.

‘Artificial intelligence systems do face an integrity issue, depending on the use case. The concern comes from the quality of the data being utilised, the quality of the training of the system, and the maintenance, possibly, of the system. Codifying integrity into these sectors will require thoughtful and creative analysis – which the forum may be in a position to begin.’