Professor Julian Webb
Senior Policy Advisor on Law Reform and Digital Justice
I feel tremendously privileged and excited to take-on this advisory role to TNL. The New Liberals is the first political party in Australia that speaks authentically to my social and economic values, and I particularly admire the party’s commitment to evidence-informed policy-making, and, in marked contrast to the old-established parties, to transparency in identifying its sources of policy advice.
I grew up in the South and West of England and was a city-dweller for much of my adult life. I now live in regional Victoria, and love the extraordinary beauty of rural Australia, and the lessons (and challenges!) it offers for living more gently on the earth. Workwise, I have been employed for most of my career in the university sector, holding chairs in law at the University of Westminster and the University of Warwick, before moving to the University of Melbourne in 2014.
Aside from my teaching, I do a lot of policy-based research and consulting. I have particular interests in the organisation and regulation of legal services, in dispute resolution systems design, and law and technology. I have been a pioneer in applying ‘complexity thinking’ to legal phenomena and regulatory systems design, and have undertaken capacity-building and governance projects for the UK Department for International Development and the UN Development Programme, amongst others. I have also taken a lead role in national reviews of legal education and training in the UK, Hong Kong and New Zealand, and in 2016 I was identified by the International Bar Association as one of the most influential scholars in the world on innovation and disruption in legal services.
Throughout my career I have been interested in educating people (not just lawyers) about law, and in questions of how we make law work for all citizens. Access to justice matters because it is a mark of a civil, liberal, society that citizens are able to enforce their rights, and hold government, other powerful interests, and ultimately each other to account. Problems of access to justice, however, abound, shaped by a triple whammy of procedural and informational barriers to accessing the law, the often prohibitive cost of legal services, and the state’s retreat from legal aid. Consequently, the civil and family justice systems in Australia today are essentially broken, with reforms over the last 20 years tinkering around the edges. We need to ask – and answer – hard questions about the kind of system that is fit for purpose in a 21st Century society.
Digital justice is a critical part of this conversation. Digital technology presents both enormous opportunities and threats in the legal space. It offers alternative avenues for dispute prevention and resolution; it could potentially do much to democratise and enhance the quality of legal and bureaucratic decision-making. But it may also lock-in significant human biases into automated systems, bypass our traditional, non-digital, accountability mechanisms, and create new threats (or at least new forms of old threats) to the rule of law. As the Australian Human Rights Commission (2021) has highlighted, government needs to move swiftly to establish clear principles of legal accountability for the use of AI by both governments and private sector organisations, and to take the lead on promoting ‘human rights by design’ in automated decision-making. The prospects of this happening under the present government seem remote. Yet, if we don’t act, the risk is that unfairness and non-accountability become hard-wired into more and more of our digital systems. It is time for a new political force to get on with the job.