The Two Goals of Legal Rituals

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2017


Legal rituals have two social goals: dispute resolution and entertainment. Dispute resolution is a well-recognized pillar around which the legal system is organized. Entertainment is not spoken of as often, but when you look at how the legal rituals are conducted it is clearly part of the system. In the 2010's the highest profile examples of this are the numerous court shows on afternoon TV.

Again, what this is indicating is that legal rituals are serving two functions. How will these two functions evolve as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) play more of a role in legal rituals?

The goals of dispute resolution

The goals of dispute resolution are getting the parties involved to agree on fair and speedy choices that end the dispute and let those involved move on with their lives. Using arbitration rather than a court of law is an example of valuing a faster solution. Again, fair and speedy are the key aspirations. As more data and artificial intelligence get involved the fairness and speed can increase dramatically.

We can expect to see dispute situations get solved faster and more cheaply. We can expect to see dispute resolution institutions, such as arbitration, evolve steadily and evolve away from traditional court rituals. They will get fast and look like they are automatic.

The goals of entertainment

When the goal of solving a case involves a lot of entertainment element it gets handled very differently than when the goal is speedy dispute resolution. The more entertainment is involved the more important ritual becomes.

This entertainment element means letting the public hear the evidence and then gossip about the significance of the various aspects of the case. This is why the traditional judge and jury system remains enduringly popular -- it is not just the judge and jury that are hearing about the case, it is the audience too.

Another element of the traditional system is surprise: the choices that juries make are far from certain, either before the trail begins or even as the trial progresses. Like in sports contests, this adds to the entertainment value.

For this reason the traditional system is likely to endure.


As these two systems diverge more and more, the big first question becomes: to which system is any particular case going to be submitted to? And who makes the choice?


As we move into the 2050's these two goals of the legal system are going to be moved into different organizational tracks. Those who want their case treated as dispute resolution and want a quick answer will choose the dispute resolution track. This track is likely to evolve dramatically over the next few decades as more Big Data and AI can provide evidence so the case can be seen thoroughly and resolved quickly.

Those who want their case treated in traditional ways are providing entertainment value to the community. The rituals for these styles of cases are not going to change much. The leisurely pace of revealing the evidence and the uncertainty of the outcome will remain important elements.

The tough choice in the future will become which style of institution should handle the dispute: modern dispute resolvers or traditional courts?



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