To an outsider, the British justice system probably seems a little odd. A criminal could find him or herself being sentenced by a 19-year-old student, perhaps, or even an old man in a wig.
However, some Chinese criminals have to contend with something even more strange. Their sentences could very well be decided by a computer program.
According to reports, the Zichuan District People's Court has decided about 1,500 sentences using an application developed by a Beijing-based software company. About 100 different crimes are catered for, from your everyday robbery to your rather-more-serious murder and crimes against the state. It's apparently just a case of tapping in the details and pressing enter.
While we're not sure this is entirely just - for example, how does the program deal with mitigating circumstances? - it does have some interesting possibilities. Perhaps we won't need judges in the future. When someone is collared for a low-level offence, for example, riding their Segway on the pavement (to the chap I see most mornings on Gray's Inn Road - don't think I'm going to let you get away with it for much longer. You're going down, pal) they can be whisked off to the local police station or internet cafe, and sentenced to 100 hours community service. Or hard labour, I don't mind which.
Seriously though, computerised justice is quite a scary concept. What if it's not just the sentencing but the determining of guilt or innocence that is left to the program? And what modifications to the software would be needed? Would it be a case of inputting the entire works of Agatha Christie?