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Justice Aedit Abdullah: Speech delivered at Conversations with the Community on 30 May 2024

30 May 2024

“Technology as a Bridge to Justice”

The Honourable Justice Aedit Abdullah
Judge of the High Court of Singapore, and Judge in Charge of Transformation and Innovation


1.                A very good afternoon to everyone. Thank you for joining us today for the fifth instalment of the Singapore Courts’ “Conversations with the Community” series. I would also like to thank the Singapore University of Social Sciences (School of Law) for hosting this session today. It is indeed befitting that I am making my address on technology as a bridge to justice in a university. Law students represent the future of the legal profession; their values and views would shape our legal system in the years to come.

2.               The Courts have embraced technology to not only support lawyers but also empower members of the public in navigating legal processes. By leveraging technology, we aim to enhance accessibility, transparency, and efficiency within the legal system. However, amidst our digital advancements, we must remain mindful of the segment of the public that lacks access to technology. It is crucial that as we progress towards a more technologically-driven legal landscape, we do not leave anyone behind. At the first instalment of “Conversations with the Community”, the Chief Justice shared for example how the Family Justice Courts’ Divorce and Probate eServices can be used to generate court papers that are needed to apply for a divorce or for a Grant of Probate in certain cases. He also shared that we have been exploring the use of generative artificial intelligence to advance our mission of access to justice. I will be touching briefly on the latter in my sharing today.

3.               The primary objective of innovation and adoption of technology in the judiciary in Singapore is to serve the public better, by ensuring greater efficiency, through faster and cheaper services, and lower manpower costs. Within the specific context of the judiciary and the legal system as a whole, additional aims include the elimination or reduction of errors, the facilitation of the work of judges, and lawyers, and improving access to justice. Strengthening fairness is also to be achieved by harnessing technology to help judges achieve just outcomes by facilitating the work of scrutiny of arguments and evidence.

4.               On the flip side however, we must ensure that we never pursue innovation simply for innovation’s sake. As a public agency, the judiciary has a responsibility to ensure that public money is spent prudently. Experimentation and risk taking is to be encouraged, but any effort must be geared towards the better and more efficient administration of justice, with the aim of serving the needs of the public.

5.               Let me first begin by explaining how the Courts see our role in the justice system.

The Role of the Courts

6.               The Courts exist not just to resolve disputes, otherwise we are no different from arbitration or mediation chambers or associations. The primary function of the Courts is to further justice according to law. The Constitution, after all, confers upon the superior courts the exercise of judicial power, and the junior courts are subject to the supervision of the superior courts. To fulfil that function, the Court cannot merely be passive and reactive to changes. The Courts have a systemic role in furthering justice. This means that the Courts should take the lead in identifying improvements to processes, capabilities and facilities in the justice system. That would include the proper harnessing of technology.

7.               The interplay between technology and justice may bring to mind images of robot judges, and other tropes of science fiction. Some of these might yet come to pass, but in determining what technology should do for justice, it is essential first and foremost to consider what justice entails. And in that analysis, it is evident that what parties may seek from justice will vary along a spectrum. At one end, there are those who have the ability to obtain legal representation through lawyers who are more than able to handle complex procedural applications, complex factual disputes and hearings that may take a substantial amount of time. At the other end, there are those who may not be able to afford legal representation, or who choose for one reason or another not to, and who may have difficulties coming to grips with and navigating the justice system. The cost of legal representation has been increasing, and there is a greater readiness on the part of many to make do without lawyers. Increasingly, many types of proceedings are done without lawyers, as a default. The causes of these are varied. As exemplified by the expansion of tribunal proceedings, there is a desire for simpler, faster procedures, saving time and resources. All along the spectrum, there will be varying requirements and demands: the needs of small or medium enterprises may differ from multi-national corporations, or from individuals with family offices. Other areas of law outside civil disputes such as criminal law and family law will throw up other specific challenges, which I will not be able to examine in today’s speech.

8.               The justice system thus needs to look at the various needs and work out measures to facilitate justice for each category of party. In this effort, technology has to be leveraged to overcome obstacles and address shortcomings. In respect of complex commercial matters, the role of technology is primarily geared towards efficiency. It is not a trivial exercise. Such efforts can be geared towards a range of activities. It is incumbent upon the Courts to make sure that it has the appropriate systems and facilities in place to make hearings as smooth as possible. This would include ensuring we allow lawyers to bring in and use their preferred litigation support or case presentation systems wherever possible; ensuring that we provide facilities for quality of life improvements in litigation such as automatic simultaneous transcription and translation; facilitating remote hearings wherever desired, such as by allowing seamless remote testimony and presentation of evidence; and also putting in systems to assist judges to make sense of voluminous evidence including documents, and to more easily reach decisions and produce judgments.

9.               As for facilitating justice for the person in the street, this will entail a few aspects. Primarily, it will be about enabling that person to participate in, and pursue or defend proceedings in the Court. This requires enabling the person to understand processes and the law, being able to participate, comply with procedures and processes, being able to present cases, being able to marshal, gather and present evidence, to address and make arguments on the law and the facts, and to understand outcomes and consequences including enforcement and appeals. The law is a particularly difficult area to facilitate engagement. Specialized learning and expertise, requiring years of training, with specialist vocabulary, and modes of behaviour, mean that the law is often quite alien to the experience and expertise of the person in the street. Technology promises the possibility of meeting these needs.

10.               Yet technology alone cannot be the solution. It has to be tied in with a change in approach in culture and philosophy. Institutionally, the Courts, judges and judicial officers, and administrators, would have seen the Courts as a disinterested organization, neutral and passive. Parties bring disputes to it, and have it determined by the courts, which do not take an interest in the outcome, or participate in any way. But this passivity is no longer enough. The Courts do have, as identified by the Chief Justice(1) , a systemic role.

11.               There is a balance to be struck between the necessary neutrality to ensure fairness in its processes, and providing assistance. The Courts should not cross into providing to a party such a degree of assistance that it crosses into advocating for the party, or that shows bias or preference for that party over the other. Some have argued that the Courts should also not provide advice, as opposed to information. The line between advice and information is thin and to my mind sometimes illusory. We should move away from that.

12.               Technology is thus not a panacea or the sole tool. Technology must be part of a holistic approach that encompasses process reengineering, reform of substantive laws, and organizational or cultural change. All of these must be relooked from time to time, and there must be a constant commitment to shear away the unnecessary. There will always be accretions and we must be on guard against allowing unnecessary accretions to jam up the mechanisms and processes.

13.               Now, in all that we do, there will be various risks. Sometimes it is about information security: digital information is often more readily accessible and copied than hardcopies. Sometimes, it is about improper behaviour, such as perhaps parties or lawyers, or even judicial officers, making improper use of generative AI for example. Other risk may be posed in the danger of leaving behind groups of the vulnerable or ill-equipped, for example by leaving out those who cannot use computers or phones to access court services. Such risks do exist but the solution is not to shy away from what we need to do to develop and innovate, but to work out appropriate mechanisms and safeguards.

14.               Let me now turn to some of our initiatives that flow from this approach.

What is in Development

15.               The objectives of our next stage development are twofold. Firstly, to promote and facilitate Singapore’s continued growth as a dispute resolution hub and centre for legal work within the region and beyond. Secondly, it is to ensure continued and better access to justice. Directions have been given by the Chief Justice in various speeches: firstly, on an annual basis in his Opening of Legal Year speeches; secondly, in his speech ‘Technology and the Changing Face of Justice’(2) , delivered on 14 November 2019 to the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group ADR Conference 2019; and thirdly, his Opening Address, Conversations with the Community, 21 September 2023, ‘The Role of the Courts in Our Society – Safeguarding Society’(3) . The central points made that are relevant for our purposes is that technology is an important bridge or enabler for access to justice, and that the courts must promote such access in fulfilment of the judiciary’s systemic role as the institution charged with the responsibility for the administration of justice. The Courts must ensure the fair and efficient administration of justice, and thus in fulfilment of that, must help develop systems and processes that deliver and excel in the administration of justice. This includes assisting Court users in understanding and navigating the justice system, what we refer to as assistive responsibility.

16.               Our approach is largely aligned along the following categories; (1) Access to Justice; (2) Promoting Efficiency and (3) Harnessing Data. These form the three large categories of our revamped “Courts of The Future” (COTF) framework.

Access to Justice

17.               Technology facilitates access to justice by allowing self-represented persons (“SRPs”) to navigate the legal system on their own without the need to engage lawyers. This is a necessary function of the legal system. To serve the public, the end users, the legal system must work towards facilitating access to justice. Everyone should work towards removing obstacles. This requires questioning of the rules and processes currently in place.

18.               There needs to be constant exploration of what systems might assist the SRP. A big need is how to deal with the legal system. Laws are hard, often written in technical and specific language that is not clear for the average person. Relevant laws may also be spread over different sources, not in one place. It will be very hard for a lay person who is not trained to find out what matters, without doing research, which can still have mistakes or confusing statements. The SRP needs help to understand the legal issues. Different solutions, such as using generative AI, guided forms and simpler and more user-friendly information are needed.

19.               At the same time, the Courts will have to confront the issue of what can be legitimately done. There is a tension in many common law jurisdictions between providing information and straying into the provision of legal advice, which the courts cannot do. This has led in the past to an extreme reluctance to help the SRP in dealing with court processes. All that was done was to direct the SRP to the nearest legal clinic or to the Law Society of Singapore, to get their own legal advice or to “find a lawyer”. This is no longer sufficient. The Courts have an obligation to assist the SRP, at least in the provision of legal information, so that the SRP can consider what steps can be taken in his or her own interest.

20.               Yet another aspect of access to justice, is to divert parties away from contentious legal processes wherever possible, so that they are able to achieve appropriate outcomes through mediation, avoiding the cost and contention of litigation, if they so choose. Outcome simulators, such as at Motor Accident Claims online, are an important outlet for such efforts.


21.               Efficiency efforts reap the primary objective of the adoption of technology, namely greater productivity by making work easier, faster and more accurate than before. In respect of lawyers, this would encompass e-filing, case management and document management. While some of these would fall outside the purview of the courts, such as matter management, the Courts would have a stake and interest in facilitating presentation of cases in hearings. Ideally, to minimize friction and reduce transaction costs, there should be free and unimpeded flow of information from the law firms’ systems into the court and vice versa, subject of course to proper security gatekeeping. Lawyers would also be helped by easier and faster legal research and anything that promotes faster and efficient writing. As indicated by the discussion on access to justice, efficiency should also encompass easing filing and conduct of cases by SRPs, wherever possible.


22.               Harnessing data is an important function of technology. Data properly used, allows us to glean intelligence about inchoate trends, obtain evidence about possible causes of problems, and permits granular analysis of issues. All of these efforts can build better judicial administration, enabling the courts to refine judiciary policy, anticipate and prepare for increases in case load, identify new trends which may require more expenditure, more training and education of judges, and to check on the effectiveness of legal doctrine. Of course, harnessing data alone will not be enough – there will have to be concurrent efforts to have better interpretation and better empirical research skills. In addition, data will also be useful for the government, allowing agencies for instance to gauge the demographics of offenders, or of those seeking divorce early in a marriage, allowing for the better calibration of intervention by way of new policies.

Specific Project Examples

23.               I will now provide a broad survey of our ongoing and current projects.

24.               Motor Accident Claims Online (“MACO”) is an application allowing users to see what the likely determination of liability will be if they were to pursue an accident claim in court, and also the quantum that is likely to be awarded. The user is able to input various parameters into the system, such as the type of road junction, and the position of the vehicles involved, in order to get a prediction of the likely determination of liability. In most accident cases in Singapore, the courts will determine the proportion of liability between the parties involved such as 50-50, 30-70, and the like. The liability indicator will be able to give this estimate, allowing the user to consider whether it would be worthwhile to pursue the claim, and importantly motivate the user to settle if an offer is made that is close to the estimate. The quantum simulator then helps the user to identify the likely award for various kinds of injuries that may be suffered in an accident, such as fractures and whiplash. The system was developed by the judiciary and is currently hosted by the Singapore Academy of Law.

25.               The Authentic Court Orders system enables the user to determine that a copy of a court order is in fact authentic and issued by the Singapore Courts. Previously, such authentication would have required a stamp and signature of a duly appointed officer, indicating that the copy is a certified true copy. Getting a physically Certified-True-Copy of any document can be cumbersome for a user, who has to physically come down to the courts to arrange for certification. Instead, with our ACO system, a unique QR code is displayed on our Court Orders, allowing the bank or any other institution to whom the copy is sent to, to quickly cross-check online whether what he sees is indeed what was issued by the Courts. We had in implementing this system, preferred it over other then emerging systems, including blockchain technology.

26.               In family proceedings, we have worked on the development of simplified track divorces, which allows a self-represented person in simple divorces i.e. those where parties are agreed on the reasons for divorce and the orders to be made, to prepare and file documents easily online, with accompanying guidance and the automatic generation of the required court papers.

27.               We have rolled out a Document Signing Service (“DSS”), allowing documents to be signed digitally on e-Litigation, by making use of our national digital identity system, Singpass. Documents on e-Litigation may be signed by linking up the relevant document to the Singpass authentication system. In addition to digital signing, we have made use of another aspect of the Singpass system – letters and notices may be sent to an inbox on the Singpass app. Leveraging on that capability, we have since September 2022 also made it possible to perform substituted service of court documents through the Singpass app Inbox. This may be expanded in the future.

28.               The SG Courts Mobile (e-Litigation) App was developed to allow those on the move to access e-Litigation documents, and also in response to lawyers being not just digital native but also mobile native. Currently, the SG Courts mobile app allows lawyers to access their case files, view documents, hearing dates, and just recently, to obtain queue numbers for their hearings; we are continuing to explore other functionalities.

29.               Asynchronous hearings are hearings in which the parties and the courts are not actually together at the same time – in several situations, court hearings need not involve all parties and judge being brought together. Many administrative hearings can be conducted asynchronously, i.e. the parties and the court need not be present at the same time, either physically or remotely. Asynchronous hearings using emails were instituted in the pandemic, but to facilitate tracking by parties and lawyers, a new asynchronous hearing system on e-Litigation was launched with the discussion kept on record, within the case file. We hope to be able to extend this functionality to the SG Courts Mobile (e-Litigation) App before too long.

30.               Another important area for judges is the transcript of evidence given in court. Machine recognition of spoken testimony is challenging, and a 90% rate of accuracy still introduces too many errors, which are distracting and may affect the accuracy and reliability of the transcript. Work is ongoing to try to reduce the error rate as far as possible. A number of factors, including accent, language used and the quality of recording (including microphone placement) affect the quality of the product. This would also likely reduce the cost of obtaining transcripts from the Courts.

Generative AI

31.               The recent burst of innovation sparked by the introduction of generative AI has not spared justice systems. I will now briefly outline the Singapore judiciary’s efforts and other developments in Singapore.

Harvey AI Collaboration

32.               The Singapore judiciary signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with Harvey AI in August 2023. Harvey AI is an American start-up developing legal AI, having obtained funding from Open AI. It has already entered into partnerships with Allen & Overy and PwC Legal, among others. The MOU that Singapore has entered into is aimed at promoting access to justice. The aim is to use AI to assist SRPs in navigating legal processes, starting with small value claims. We are looking at using AI to assist SRPs in filing their claims and understanding what evidence they need to produce, help them present their cases, give an assessment of their chances of success and nudge them towards settlement, if possible.

33.               We also hope to have the AI assist Small Claims Tribunal Magistrates in examining evidence. The volume of evidence and submissions can be voluminous here, even though the parties are not represented by lawyers. As the self-represented persons are not legally trained, and are of varying educational levels, the materials they rely upon may be a mixture of the relevant and irrelevant. Trawling through and sifting the wheat from the chaff is a laborious and time-consuming process. We are exploring using Harvey AI to help our Tribunal Magistrates summarise and digest these materials.

34.               Alongside our collaboration with Harvey AI, we are also testing out using other generative AI models, including some developed by government agencies in Singapore. This is part of our exploration of the space. The Singapore Academy of Law, which runs the Lawnet legal research system, is exploring the use of generative AI to assist such work. We are also particularly keen on examining AI use in both transcription and translation.

35.               All of these efforts will lay the foundation for further use of AI in the court room in other contexts.

36.               We are aware that the use of generative AI whether by the courts, lawyers and users throw up a number of important issues, including ethics, security and ensuring that the digital divide is overcome. We are developing guidance documents to be issued publicly to remind users, both lawyers and SRPs, of what they should be aware of and what they should disclose to the court and other parties when they use generative AI.

37.               Legal practice will certainly face substantial challenges. Generative AI tools may assist SRPs to do without lawyers in more litigation contexts. Corporate clients may feel that they can easily draft contracts and agreements without involving lawyers. Traditional business models will also be disrupted by the increasing availability of generative AI tools in various areas of work usually undertaken by junior, cheaper lawyers, including document review, legal research and aspects of discovery. This last area highlights the challenges for legal education and training, which will require adaptation and change, both in law schools and in the early years of legal practice. A joint judicial-government committee is taking these concerns on board in its work on reforming legal education and continuing development.

Concluding Remarks

38.               Increasingly the impetus for innovation comes from across the legal sector, with multiple centers of development. Many law firms and individual lawyers are aware of the need for constant innovation. Thus, increasingly, we see law firms experimenting with new technology, business models, and leading the way. Many individuals in the legal sector and outside it have chosen to pursue careers in legal technology and services. This is to be welcomed, as increased variety of drivers help ensure flexibility and is a testament to a deep acceptance and comfort with technology and innovation, and to ensure that the legal sector remains ready for the future.

39.               Nonetheless, even with widespread innovation, the Courts must continue to lead the way in its systemic role as the institution tasked under the Constitution with the determination of disputes, and its wider role in ensuring the proper administration of justice within Singapore. It works of course in tandem with its partners. This is exemplified by the close cooperation of the main partners within the legal sector, namely the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the Law Society, and the various ministries, including the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Finance. Much assistance and support has been obtained from the main government technology agencies, particularly Govtech. We also work strongly with the three Law Schools in Singapore.

40.               The Singapore Courts’ journey of digitalization and adoption of technology continues. We do not have all the answers, and have made our own share of errors. As in any other area of innovation, there will be uncertainty, insecurity and sometimes fear. The management of cultural change will require shifts in perceptions, beliefs, and practices. What is unchanging are the basic values underlying the institution and its members. For those of us in the Courts or in legal practice, the essential value is of upholding fairness and justice, with the aim of better achieving justice according to law. Whatever challenges there may be in further technological innovation, in launching large programs, or in dealing with day-to-day frustration, the Courts will continue working with our partners, stakeholders, and social welfare organisations, to ensure that we leave no person behind.

41.               Thank you.

(1)       Opening Address, Conversations with the Community, 21 September 2023, ‘The Role of the Courts in Our Society – Safeguarding Society’ -, Part III


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