Robot Judges: Where’s the Line?

Judge's Gavel

Written by Charles Gluckstein, Partner & Lawyer

Estonia recently announced that it is in the process of building a Robo-Judge that will preside over the small claims court. This move toward technology-driven tools is not new for the tiny country. Most government agencies and services are already online, and the majority of the country uses online national ID cards.

While this rapid move toward digitization is convenient and savvy, it begs the question: where is the line? Does a pervasive digital footprint and reliance on artificial intelligence (“AI”) benefit or hurt the public? What are the pros and cons of moving into AI-assisted technology?


Estonia has a long history of digital advancement, dating back to the late 1990s and early 2000s. By forming a solid foundation in both e-commerce and e-banking, Estonia has ensured the successful transition of digital health records, voting, payments and identification. At present, almost all public services in Estonia are available online 24/7/365. One of the first steps that the Estonian government took to veer away from human government work was the elimination of physical inspections of farms that receive government subsidies. Instead of sending workers to conduct these inspections, the government used satellite images to confirm whether farmers were actually carrying out tasks for which they received subsidies. In doing so, the Estonian government saved almost $800,000 in its first year. The Estonian government has also seen technological advances in other sectors, including educational enrollment in primary schools immediately following birth, and the matching of unemployed workers with suitable jobs.

The mechanics

Confused about how the Robo-Judge works? Here’s a breakdown. Before a court proceeding takes place, the robot will be fed all essential documents and will be given time to analyze them. Once the documents are analyzed, any claim under $8,000 will be tried in front of the virtual judge. If the citizen is not satisfied, the case can be appealed to a human judge. This system is being put into place so that human judges can focus their time on larger, more important cases. The implementation of a Robo-Judge is meant to speed up the small claims process while clearing out the backlog of cases in the queue. In doing so, the government of Estonia seeks to work more efficiently and quickly.

Good or evil?

The advantages to this type of technology are relatively simple to envision. In employing the use of a robot, the government is saving money by using one extremely efficient ‘employee’ instead of multiple. Further, employing a robot is seamless and speedy, allowing for citizens and professionals to move about their days at faster speeds. Since the people of Estonia are comfortable with the use and assimilation of technologically-driven programs, the implementation of a Robo-Judge will most likely be celebrated by the public. The disadvantages of integrating this Robo-Judge into the justice system are a bit more complex. While the court-going process is shorter, many government jobs will become obsolete or significantly weakened with the integration of Robo-Judges. Further, the gap for error is much larger and, if the algorithm does not properly read information, someone is at risk for an incorrect or unjust verdict. This concern also links to an issue with accuracy; how do civilians get a better understanding of how the algorithm works to determine how their cases are handled? Transparency could be a major issue, as well as the disconnect between human emotion and reason and case judgments.

How do you feel about Robo-Judges? Do you think they would be a useful addition to the Canadian justice system? Let us know in the comments below!

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