OPINION: Approaches and offerings in terms of LegalTech, AI, and Computational Law in Southeast Asia
Written by Nanda Min Htin
LegalTech, Artificial intelligence (AI) and Computational Law are disrupting the modern legal profession across the world. While technological disruption of legal systems is inevitable, there needs to be a regional awareness as to how these technologies are adopted in various jurisdictions. This article will outline and compare the state of play of the three aforementioned technologies in Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar.
LegalTech entails the use of technology, mainly software, by legal service providers to facilitate the management of processes and information. These technologies exist in a variety of applications within the legal industry, including practice management, e-Discovery and online dispute resolution.
AI can generally be understood as systems that can learn, reason and make decisions much like humans do, or even to a superior degree, with minimal to no human direction. Cutting-edge examples include the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer-3 (GPT-3), an autoregressive language model that has proven capable of drafting lease negotiation letters.
Computational law is a subset of legal informatics that primarily seeks to automate legal reasoning. Systems that can analyze real or hypothetical cases without human experts and facilitate regulatory compliance would require such computational logic to be applied to traditional legal thinking.
State of play – Singapore
Singapore boasts strong cooperation between multiple stakeholders in its LegalTech ecosystem, which was already the largest in South-East Asia by 2019 by virtue of 25 LegalTech firms.
The 2020 Legal Industry Technology & Innovation Roadmap Report released by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) confirms Singapore’s aim not to be just a regional hub, but a “global LegalTech hub”.
The MinLaw Roadmap implements the Legal Technology Platform Initiative (LTPI). One of the highlights of the LTPI is “Lupl”, an all-in-one toolkit for collaboration among clients, lawyers, outside counsel, and business stakeholders. While similar productivity apps may be prolific outside of the legal sector (think Monday.com, Trello etc.), niche products built for the legal sector are less common, and especially those endorsed on a national scale.
The Judiciary is also involved. In 2017, the Intelligent Court Transcription System (iCTS) was implemented in the State Courts as a real-time transcription system for oral evidence.
Further, in response to the pandemic, the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 was passed so that judges, lawyers, accused persons and witnesses may participate in hearings using remote communication technology.
AI is a crucial component of the LegalTech offerings in Singapore, with both domestic and international firms such as SmartLaw and Avvoka providing AI-powered automation tools. It is noteworthy that the adoption of AI across all major industries, including legal, is yet another state priority for Singapore. In 2019, the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) released the Model AI Governance Framework (Model Framework), which provides comprehensive guidance to the private sector on how to deploy AI solutions as a matter of governance and ethics.
Lastly, the SMU Centre for Computational Law is constructing an open-source DSL for law, L4, which envisages the writing of legal rules (e.g. contractual terms) and allowing other applications to translate that code into other useful applications. Such applications would include the building of expert systems such as Turbo Tax, which can guide a client in filling in tax forms much like a human expert could. A S$15 million grant has been supplied by the government to bring this project to fruition.
State of play – Indonesia
Indonesia is the world’s fourth biggest country by population, with more than three hundred languages spoken across its archipelago. While it is a civil law jurisdiction, Indonesia also recognizes case law and customary law. There is a large untapped legal market in Indonesia, which is estimated to be worth about US$7.5 billion.
Access to justice is a crucial issue that LegalTech players are focusing on. One example is Justika, a local legal services marketplace that connects clients with practicing lawyers, which facilitates chat services between these parties for only $2. Justika employs Natural Language Processing (NLP), a subset of AI, to match clients to curated lawyers based on specialties within a lead time of just five minutes.
Separately, UMBRA was the first Indonesian law firm customer to adopt Luminance’s leading AI platform which is trained by human experts to read, understand and highlight anomalies among large groups of legal documents at speeds no human can match.
Indonesia’s judiciary is not falling behind its industry counterparts either. In line with the Blueprint for Judicial Reform 2010-2035, the Supreme Court launched the E-Courts in 2018. To date, it boasts 4 main features implemented in about a thousand courts nationwide: E-Filing, E-Payment, E-Summon, and E-litigation at the Supreme court. Express regulatory provisions have also been made to legitimize the adoption of technology for court processes. As provided by the Judicial Power Law, the principle underlying all these initiatives is that of providing efficient trials.
Other broader state strategies include national guidelines on how Indonesia intends to develop AI in multiple sectors between 2020 and 2045, similar to Singapore albeit with an even longer-term outlook.  Such directives would inevitably accelerate and clarify the legal remit for the adoption of AI and related technologies within the legal profession.
State of play – Myanmar
The Burmese landscape of the intersection between law and technology has not been canvassed extensively. Regardless, it would be fruitful to explore how LegalTech and associated innovations are helping to modernize the law in a developing country.
One sign of a regulatory push for technological innovation can be found in the inaugural Myanmar e-Governance Master Plan (2016-2020) Chapter 3, which calls for the development of the e-Government system. In essence, the government had pledged to overhaul the nation’s ICT laws in order to more effectively develop electronically enabled government processes. Although LegalTech processes were not expressly mentioned in the inaugural version of such a broad document, they could well be an aspect in time to come. This is especially given that state and non-state efforts, though fragmented, already exist in the market. Further, if not for the military coup, The Ministry of Transport and Communications was supposed to enact the second Myanmar e-Governance Master Plan (2021-2025) to guide the online transition of major administrative functions and thusly provided greater areas of application for legal technologies.
Irrespective of intricate socio-political objectives, technological solutions already exist in the market and have already been adopted in straightforward yet crucial applications. In 2018, the Myanmar Law Information System (MLIS) was developed to transfer much of the country’s paper-based Constitution, regulations, precedents, ordinances and more onto the Internet in both Burmese and English. This technology was shared by South Korea’s Legislation Ministry, and was expected to improve access to labor and tax laws in particular.
Recently, JusWise Myanmar was named as part of the 30 People to Watch in the Business of Law in Asia in 2022. This student-run nonprofit constructed a free web search engine for hundreds of judicial cases and is working on an attorney directory portal for public use.
Regardless of whether there is an impetus at the national level to promote LegalTech in the long run, Myanmar ought to be recognized for individual efforts that have already seen practical impact.
Comparative analysis – Technical offerings
Singapore and Indonesia share a clear delineation between their LegalTech and AI efforts. The latter is enshrined as a separate task across every major industry beyond the legal one; though their nationwide AI frameworks do not preclude the use of AI within LegalTech solutions themselves.
It is difficult to find prominent applications of tech in law in Myanmar. The examples listed in this paper, which are already some of the most prominent ones, are really database plays with a keen emphasis on the collection, curation, and accessibility of legal data. However, even if these database technologies do not employ such commonplace technologies as AI or advanced NLP, the fact that the previously obscure law has now become publicly accessible is a massive achievement for tech.
As for the development of computational law, there does not seem to be a state imperative in any of the three countries. Even in Singapore, its development is confined to academia and industry, which is not surprising given its complexity and the scale at which it could radically change the way lawyers think and work.
Comparative analysis – State priorities
Indonesia and Singapore already have well-developed legal systems and substantive laws. Thus, the task for technology is more about optimizing the administration of justice than to establish justice entirely. The latter would be more relevant to Myanmar. Nevertheless, access to justice is a perennial challenge that all countries seek to address, albeit in different ways.
The difference between Singapore and Indonesia would lie in practical implementation. While in principle, the Indonesian judiciary adopts a principle of striving to provide simple, fast, and low-cost case resolutions, cases run very slowly. In particular, administrative responsibility for handling cases is inefficiently distributed across the General Bureau, the Directorate of Institutions and Procedures, and the Registrar’s Office. Any improvements to how cases are handled within the court would be shortchanged if the caseload is stuck between these three departments. This is especially because Indonesia’ case management is not yet digitalized. Unlike in Singapore, corruption among influential parties and court clerks is also commonplace. This would lead to selective case management and overshadow any gains provided by technology.
In contrast, Myanmar is still working on the provision of fundamental legal services. Unlike Singapore and Indonesia, the need for technology has barely been recognized within statutes or other regulatory instruments given that there are more pressing substantive priorities over procedural ones. Thus, any development is likely to come from individual efforts from new entrants to the LegalTech sector.
But regardless of the requirements of the respective legal systems, it is undeniable that access to justice is a common thread that runs across all of them.
Comparative analysis – The need for international collaboration
One unmistakable commonality among all three countries is the acknowledgement of and reliance on international collaboration to develop tech in law. In Singapore, where there are numerous siloed LegalTech solutions, the government has endorsed US-based Lupl as its partner for industry-wide, cross-firm collaboration. Similarly, Indonesian law firms rely on plug and play technologies such as Luminance to provide ready-made solutions. For Myanmar, South Korea’s involvement in the MLIS further emphasizes the importance of ready-made solutions for less developed countries which may be hesitant to rely on domestic solutions (if they even exist to begin with).
While it is acknowledged that Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar have quite different LegalTech, AI and computational law offerings, the one common notion all these countries share is that of technological progress. Regardless of their respective socio-political aims, tech is here to grow and stay.
As Minister Edwin Tong said, lawyers cannot be replaced with AI (or related technologies) –tech may help with back-end operations, but it cannot replace the lawyer’s creativity and human touch.  This is true not just in Singapore, but also in its neighboring countries given that the law is such a human-centric profession based on notions of education and cooperation.
One future of tech definitely resides in the law. Southeast Asia proves to be a promising market as long as stakeholders are aware of and leverage upon the nuances of the different countries within the region.
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Nanda is an LL.B. candidate at the Singapore Management University (SMU). He serves as a Steering Committee member of the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA) and a Senior Advisor of the SMU Legal Innovation & Technology club (SMU-LIT). The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of SMU, ALITA or SMU-LIT.