A robot for a lawyer? 

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III

It was reported in this newspaper that a startup has invented an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled robot that can dispense legal advice during court proceedings. The advice will be funneled through the internet as the accused is on earphones. This will be tested in a case that involves a speeding charge in the US.

The app monikered DoNotPay aims to defend an accused who has downloaded it, during litigation. The ‘legal service’ to be provided by the AI is purportedly for free. It is unclear though whether this is sanctioned by the US courts and if this will be allowed only for minor brushes with the law or petty crimes, or for even graver offenses.

But in any case, this column has serious misgivings about people having robots as lawyers.

In the Philippines, there is a surfeit of cases where the Supreme Court expressed some sort of ominous foreboding about applying the law ‘robotically’ or too mechanistically.

In Alonzo v. IAC (G.R. No. 72973, May 27, 1987), the co-owners of a piece of land who took their sweet time (14 years) to question the sale by their co-owners to third persons of a slice of the co-owned property, by exercising their right of redemption, were rebuffed by the Supreme Court. This is notwithstanding the clear literal meaning of Articles 1088 and 1623 of the New Civil Code which give the co-owners thirty (30) days to exercise their right of redemption “from notice in writing by the prospective vendor” and here no written notice was given.

The Supreme Court concluded that to apply the law too robotically is to be prone to error. Rather, the objective of every law is to be applied in such a way as to achieve justice. Thus:

As judges, we are not automatons. We do not and must not unfeelingly apply the law as worded, yielding like robots to the literal command without regard to its cause and consequence. Courts are apt to err by sticking too closely to the words of the law, so we are warned, by Justice Holmes again, where these words import a policy that goes beyond them. x x x x 

            More than twenty centuries ago, Justinian defined justice “as the constant and perpetual wish to render every one of his due”. That wish continues to motivate this Court when it assesses the facts and the law in every case brought to it for decisions. Justice is always an essential ingredient of its decisions. Thus, when the facts warrant, we interpret the law in a way that will render justice, presuming that it was the intention of the lawmaker, to begin with, that the law be dispensed with justice.

            Indeed, where the interpretation of a statute according to its exact and literal import would lead to mischievous results or contravene the clear purpose of the legislature, it should be construed according to its spirit and reason, disregarding as far as necessary the letter of the law. A statute may therefore, be extended to cases not within the literal meaning of its terms, so long as they come within its spirit or intent”.

            Taking its cue from Alonzo v. IAC, the Supreme Court again held in Republic v. Manalo (G.R. No. 221029, April 4, 2018), that at times, veering from the textual meaning of the law, if it would bring it closer to justice, would be justified. In Republic v. Manalo, the literal import of Article 26 of the Family Code on judicial recognition of foreign divorce, is that it must be the foreign spouse who must initiate the divorce abroad. So when the Filipina spouse became proactive in seeking a divorce decree in Japan against her Japanese husband who did not bother to file a divorce, the Office of the Solicitor General strenuously opposed the petition. The Supreme Court held that although the “word of the law” seems to suggest that it should be the foreign spouse who must file the petition, nevertheless, the “spirit behind the law” is such that once a divorce is obtained abroad, regardless of who procured it, that will free the foreign spouse to contract a subsequent marriage. This would leave the Filipino/ Filipina spouse still married to the alien spouse, even if the latter is no longer married to him/ her, if the Filipino/ Filipina spouse will not be allowed to obtain the divorce himself/ herself.

Yet again in The Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima (Peach Sisters of Laguna) represented by Rev. Mother Ma. Concepcion R. Realon v. Amando V. Alzona et al. (G.R. No. 224307, August 6, 2018), a donation in favor of a group of nuns who were yet to form a corporation was upheld by the Supreme Court as a valid donation even if the corporate registration was approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission two (2) days after the execution and acceptance of the donation. It held that “In closing, it must be emphasized that the Court is both of law and of justice. Thus, the Court’s mission and purpose is to apply the law with justice”.

            Too, in RG Cabrera Corporation, Inc v. Department of Public Works and Highways and Commission on Audit/RG Cabrera Corporation, Inc. a.k.a. RG Cabrera Construction, Inc. and RG Cabrera SR Trucking Corporation v. Department of Public Works and Highways and Commission on Audit, G.R. No. 231015/G.R. No. 240618/G.R. No. 249212. January 26, 2021, the overly stringent demands of the Commission on Audit in the submission of documents to pave the way for the disbursement of public funds to the contractor who had already completed the project, were eased up by the Supreme Court for the sake of justice and equity. It held:

Indeed, the existence of the appropriation and certification as to the availability of funds together with the written contract is vital and necessary for the execution of government contracts. Nevertheless, the mere absence of these documents would not necessarily rule out the possibility of the contractor receiving payment for the services rendered for the government”.

These cases illumine that the law was constructed with justice and equity in mind. Thus, it must be applied as a means leading to justice.

Laws are not lifeless. They are not uninhabited. They are crafted by humans. They synthesize human history and experience. They bear the pains and joys, hopes and failures of the human soul. They seek to improve lives and living; and bring fulfillment to the quest for the meaning of life.

Perhaps in terms of rote memorization, an AI lawyer would be far superior to a human. But a robot has no soul, no life, and is devoid of feelings. Thus, it cannot furnish meaning to life.

It would not be a good idea to have a robot for a lawyer.

Because the law must be read, interpreted, and applied with human touch.

(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates– a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a law book author. His website is etriiilaw.com).