How courts in Sabah and Sarawak are sentencing with the help of AI

By Ming En Liew

The Right Honourable Tan Sri Dato’ Abang Iskandar bin Abang Hashim, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia, speaks on the use of AI in the courtroom.

Killing one individual to save 100 others is morally right, but killing one to save 101 is wrong – this is the decree passed by AI software Delphi. Created by the Allen Institute for AI, Delphi was designed to make moral judgements, but has instead raised questions about the limitations of AI.

While limitations exist, AI’s potential is immense with the right approach. This has been exemplified by courtrooms across Sabah and Sarawak, which have adopted the use of AI in their courtrooms.

The Right Honourable Tan Sri Dato’ Abang Iskandar bin Abang Hashim, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia, speaks on how AI has transformed courtrooms in the two regions.

Challenges faced by the courts 

For decades, law has lagged behind on technological progress, but no longer. “We are doing a catch up game,” says Abang Iskandar.

Disparate sentences and efficiency are common challenges in the industry, he adds. There have been instances when judges give different sentences for similar offences. The challenge has been to find a way to mete out sentences “which are both reasonable and consistent,” he continues.

Additionally, court proceedings can be time-consuming. During a court proceeding, lawyers can raise an unlimited number of factors to convince the Court, explains Abang Iskandar.

Both prosecutors and defendants are also entitled to submit case files on past court decisions for the Court to take into account during sentencing. However, reading through these case files takes at least an hour, and potentially more if many cases are submitted, he adds.

“That is the reason why we have tried to come up with a system to address the issue, and AI has been identified as a tool which can be used to come up with recommendations,” he states.

AI: The solution to time-consuming court processes

Responsibility is now on the AI to read through and process past case files submitted by lawyers, instead of the previously tedious process where the Judge has to do so manually.

Cases will be inputted into the AI machine alongside parameters relevant to the ongoing case. Once analysed, the AI will come up with a recommended sentence, Abang Iskandar explains. This process only takes a few minutes.

The programme is only used for two types of offenses currently – the possession of dangerous drugs in Sabah, and for rape and sexual assault offenses in Sarawak. These offenses were chosen based on the vast amount of data available.

“The beautiful thing about the AI is that this recommendation is not binding in Court,” adds Abang Iskandar. “The discretion of the judge has never been compromised.”

Since no two cases are identical, judges can choose not to follow the AI’s recommendation if they believe a different sentence should be passed, says Abang Iskandar. The parameters analysed by the AI may not include what is unique to the particular case a judge is presiding over.

At the moment, the AI takes into account five parameters: status of employment; age; marital status; nationality; gender; and past acquittals, which occurs when an individual is deemed not guilty for a crime.

The AI machine has saved the courts time and improved efficiency, notes Abang Iskandar.

Room for expansion of AI use in courtrooms

After finding success in the field of criminal cases, Sabah and Sarawak are in the process of extending the use of AI to civil cases.

They are in the midst of collecting relevant past court cases which will be inputted into the AI. The algorithm will then help determine the amount of compensation victims can receive in the event of loss or injury, such as if they break their leg in a traffic accident.

Another potential use of AI is to help the public access to the court system, adds Abang Iskandar. A programme can help self-represented individuals to file their legal papers.

The pandemic saw cases being heard virtually, and the courts of Sabah and Sarawak have demonstrated how AI can be a boon when used alongside existing processes. With the right processes, the potential of tech in law is immense.