Does judicial overload compromise the independence and autonomy of the judges?

Justice Israel Guerrero Hernández is a Judge of the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Cundinamarca, Colombia.


There is no discussion or forum on the administration of justice in which judicial independence is not mentioned as a pillar of the constitutional rule of law. It must be preserved against actual or perceived threats from other authorities, particularly the executive branch.

The Constitution of Colombia states that Colombia is a social state based on the rule of law, and that the judiciary is independent. Hence, the judicial branch cannot and should not be subjected to situations of open or concealed interference by the executive branch, economic or armed groups.

However, in my judicial experience, some public policies by the executive and legislative branches weaken the independence of the judiciary, without any real redress. For example, the creation of new punishable conduct in response to social unrest and deterioration of citizen security generates an unbridled increase in prison sentences and foreclosure of alternative penal measures. While “stuffing” the judicial system with new offenses might generate the impression that it is an effective instrument to overcome citizen insecurity, it also becomes an obstacle preventing judges from attending to cases that cause the greatest harm to society, such as acts of public corruption.

Cases of public corruption, once the initial media attention and scandals are over, often become part of the growing impunity and, therefore, increase the public's distrust in the administration of justice. This results in increased pressure on judges, who are also seen as corrupt, since, in the end, all their efforts are devoted to prosecuting petty crimes.

The workload of members of the judiciary is increasing every day. This judicial congestion is caused by the proliferation of laws due to the introduction of new offenses and the increase of penalties. Judges are under pressure to meet the statistics to satisfy the demand for prompt and effective justice. Hence the question arises as to whether this situation allows for the dispense of justice preceded by a considered and calm analysis of each case. If the answer is not affirmative, then: is judicial independence guaranteed or has it been undermined amidst the demands of productivity without further considerations?

With the congestion of the judicial machinery, judges are progressively less independent when it comes to imparting prompt and effective justice. This affects the demands and expectations of justice system users, and leads to the loss of prestige and distrust in the justice operators, who are only measured with productivity parameters, more characteristic of companies in a free market society.

In this scenario, artificial intelligence (AI) is bursting with force, and it has already been announced that judges will soon be largely replaced by machines, such as ChatGPT. Many embrace this aspiration with enthusiasm. Naturally, it is absurd to oppose the growing progress of new technologies in the pursuit of increasing the welfare of mankind. However, it is worth asking, will AI tools, given their extremely high productivity, replace human beings in the task of dispensing justice? Also, one must wonder whether AI tools will assume the role of the "Hercules" judge alluded to by the thoughtful jurist Ronald Dworkin. Then, what will be the fate of judicial independence and autonomy, will it vanish, or will it be approached from a different perspective? In my role as a judge, I consider it very pertinent to continue reflecting on these issues and the implications they will have for the delivery of justice in practice.