London disputes market would benefit from change, but only in a minor key, says Lord Neuberger

Lord Neuberger's keynote speech at London International Disputes Week had a musical motif, but there were discordant notes amid the harmony

Lord Neuberger

Former Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury supplied a musical metaphor for his keynote address at the London International Disputes Week conference, speaking as an arbitrator rather than a former judge.

His opening speech took the speed of technological change as its tempo in discussing the adoption of electronic keys, the role of quantum computing and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT.

Echoing themes in Opus2's recent thought leadership report, as revealed by GLP yesterday, Neuberger said: “Quantum computing was one of the two biggest technological challenges around the corner,” adding the other “big technological challenge, which has already made itself felt in dispute resolution” was AI.

Thanks to the speed of change, Neuberger said, “we are near a time when much of the administrative work in litigation or arbitration will be done by AI,” foreseeing a time in arbitration when “AI will carry out the functions of tribunal secretaries.”

While machine decisions will be quicker, cheaper and more consistent than human decisions, Neuberger said there would be problems such as unconscious bias, a lack of transparency and public acceptability.

Like his judicial successor as Master of the Rolls Sir Geoffrey Vos discussed in his recent McNair Lecture, Neuberger said: “We in the UK should be concentrating on the more practical aspects of technological developments,” but there are limits to this.

He added: “Never let fascination with IT and the desire to be in the technological vanguard obscure the much greater importance of actual and perceived expertise and efficiency in legal advice and dispute resolution.”

Praising London's judicial, arbitral and institutional infrastructure, Neuberger took the opportunity to restate London's virtues, noting “London has an attraction as a place to conduct litigation, arbitration and mediation which is second to none.”

If he minimised the impact of Brexit on London as a disputes centre, as he did in the recent Portland Communications report, that was consistent with speeches made as a judge on the UK Supreme Court.

Having ceased to be an apparent legal service point of access to the EU, Neuberger said London had a compensating attraction as a relatively neutral location – but Brexit did not escape criticism.

Neuberger noted that “ill-advised proposed legislation involving breaches of our international law obligations, such as the Internal Markets Bill, Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and more recently the Bill of Rights Bill, would have done nothing for this country's reputation for upholding the rule of law,” adding “good sense and respect for the rule of law appear to have seen off these rather crass proposals.”

However, one future set of reforms – to the Arbitration Act – did meet in his favour: “After 25 years, it is appropriate to consider what aspects need to be changed or updated.”

He added: “London's dispute resolution service benefits this country reputationally; it also makes a very significant economic contribution,” echoing comments made by Ministry of Justice minister Mike Freer MP on Monday.

While now an arbitrator, Neuberger could not resist a word on litigation, suggesting that arbitration was seen as much quicker, cheaper and more informal than litigation. However, he warned that it was no longer the faster, more affordable alternative, as Commercial Court judges were likely to keep costs down.

That said, arbitration could learn from adjudication and more minor claims, suggesting that small and medium-sized cases should consider swifter and cheaper procedures as an option.

However, Neuberger advocated a change in a minor key, concluding: “Changes should generally be undertaken cautiously, on the principle that if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it.”

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