ICT in the access to justice
Dr. Muhammad Ashrafuzzaman
The justice system is renowned for its ties with tradition. These ties combined with a lack of understanding of Information Technology has formed strong resistance to effective use of new technologies in the court system. So, in most parts of the world, unlike other areas of government, justice system is less advanced to implement the technology. But in this race (not to accept new technology in justice system) our country could be the champion in comparisn to the neighbours.
Access and Communication are synonyms to some extent. For some improvement of communication system obviously can ease the access to not only justice but in every aspect of society. Not only access to justice but also the whole judicial system has been changed because of the improvement of the information and communication technology. An example could be the introduction of 911/999 numbers for police.
From the general perspective this change was a fairly straightforward procedure. It involved a mere 'technological replacement' -- from the old manual to a new electronic technology. For some, this was a minor change, a change in form not function, since the functionality of the previous judicial system remained the same. Staff were simply being given a more appropriate tool to perform their jobs. However, as this paper will demonstrate, the process was far more complicated. It involved the transformation of a stable working model into a new hybrid form of judicial system.
This paper highlights the complexity of the attempts to create this 'new' hybrid entity -- human and machine, body and computer -- and argues that part of this complexity derives from the fact that it presupposes a change in the people's reality and identity. A crime reported to police in person, that shares his cognitive and personal experience, is qualitatively different from that of the 911/999 calls or even an sms via mobile phone.
So, there is an enourmous job to do, now the question is from where to start. Mr Victor Perton, MP, Chairman of the Law Reform Committee of Australia said, "A useful start in formulating solutions for the justice area is to ask: How would one organise and administer a justice system if one were to devise a legal system today, given the historical context and politics surrounding the existing justice system?"
A comparisn with neighbours
I had the opportunity to visit and examine two neighbouring countries' (India and Bhutan) recent implementation of computerised justice system. In India the computerisation of courts had been advanced a great deal since the incorporation of National Informatics System in 1990. It has been in use since then and now all court activities are computerised. With much of my surprise Bhutan, the small kingdom, has also taken positive step towards computerisation. I have seen similar computerised case management. Even the judge also takes his laptop in the courtroom and could type his judgements instantly. This is something unique I have seen, even not in UK or Singapore. The Honourable Dasho Lungten Dubgyur, Drangpon (Judge) was very kind to demonstrate the whole functions of the court. All the officials of the Paro District Court are using computers. They have a very modern software (since 2003) that enables a complete case management from filing to judgement.
Technology and the court system
If we look at the evryday job of the Supreme Court causelists are a mojor cost. Couselist is scheduling of cases to be heard by the courts on the following day. The causelist is the backbone of all courts as no court can function without that day's causelist. Hence this has become very critical in all the courts. The causelists of Supreme Courts are available in printed form. This is a huge job, in terms of both workload and cost. On the other hand in India there is a part in the NIC (National Informatics Centre) Web Servers where this list is available. As the Supreme Court of India and all the 18 High Courts and their 10 Benches are fully computerised, all these courts generate daily and weekly causelists from the computer servers installed by NIC. The previos manual process used to cost each High Court lakhs of Rupees every year. By making the causelists available on Internet, no High Court is incurring any expenditure as they are using the already available infrastructure and the software of NIC. Ever since NIC took up computerization in Supreme Court of India in 1990, many applications have been computerized which have impact on litigants. The following are some of the applications which have been successfully implemented at Supreme Court and 18 High Courts of India, and these applications have either direct or indirect impact.
List of Business Information System (LOBIS), is about scheduling of cases to be heard by the courts on the following day. It enabled the Registries of Supreme Court and High Courts in eliminating manual process of causelist generation thus any manipulation by vested interests. These databases contain details of fresh cases, disposed of and pending cases. It is the backbone application of every court. As causelists are generated automatically by the computer manual intervention has been eliminated resulting in generation of causelist in time without any hassle. Cases are listed strictly in chronological order of date of filing, eliminating irregularities. All cases having the same law point(s) to be decided by the courts are bunched/grouped and posted before one bench. This has helped the courts in faster disposal of cases. It has become simpler to recall dismissed cases when review petitions are filed. On the spot reliable and instantaneous statistical reports are generated. It has helped Registry of Supreme Court in streamlining its day to day activities to achieve one of the main objectives of COURTIS Project.
Filing counter computerization is another step forward in the Supreme Court of India and all High Courts. Fresh cases are filed only before the computerized filing counters. As the advocates stand in queue for filing cases before the counters, the data entry operator enters preliminary details required for registration such as party names, advocate details, etc. The computer terminal at the query counter is used to attend to the quarries of the litigants on the spot. The defects, if any, are listed out and handed over to the litigants/advocates for rectification. Time limitation is also checked by the system automatically. The filing process has been made easy and the advocates/litigants need not wait for a long time in the queue . The amount collected towards court fee in a day is automatically calculated thus saving the court official's time. Query counter helps the litigants avoid going around the sections to find out the filing status. Filing process is orderly which saves time and efforts of advocates and court officials.
COURTNIC is about providing Supreme Court's pending case status information to litigants/advocates on any node of NICNET. COURTNIC answers about two hundred queries of litigants/advocates per day all over the country on the status of their pending cases. It is available on nominal charges. Primarily COURTNIC information is available in all NIC-High Court Computer Cells and in some District Court. It has been in use since 1993. The response to the COURTNIC from the public is over whelming, as pending cases' information is available at his/her district headquarters. It helps the litigants to avoid coming all over to Delhi from their place. The litigants need not find the status of their pending cases on phone as is the usual practice. Probably this facility is first of its kind in the world.
Technology and the legal profession
Not only the courts but the lawyers must change their tools too. With globalisation and rapid developments in information technology, legal practice as we know it today, will change beyond recognition in the next decade. Information technology ideally complements the clear trend towards globalisation of law and legal practice. Lawyers will have to learn to use technology to their advantage and come to terms with their changing role if they wish to continue to survive in the information age. Lawyers will also have to develop new markets in the information economy to remain competitive.
However, the commonwealth lawyers have yet to fully take advantage of the information age. While a few of the major firms are recognising the need to modernise practices, a majority still operate within a nineteenth century paradigm. I have found that many law firms had strange practices in relation to the Internet, restricting access rather than using it as a business and research tool. I am also very disappointed with the lack of support and information provided by professional bodies such as the Bar Council to their members on new technologies and preparing for the information economy. Without such support, legal practices are very much under threat from the increasing availability of information through internet in all aspects of life. If we take the advantage of internet version of causelist then advocates would be able to receive the cause lists almost immediately after court. Even Advocate can generate their own casulists which will contain only their cases, thus helping them not go through hundreds of pages to locate their cases. As the application is available on Internet, the litigant public can easily find out whether their cases are coming for hearing or not, without bothering the advocates.
Summary of major recommendations
A centralised government entity should be formed to coordinate and implement a centralised approach to the introduction of technology across government, amalgamation of the administration and registry functions of all courts and tribunals, establishment of a law and technology clearing house that collaborates internationally to promote best practice uses of new technologies, comprehensive training for judges and court administrators on the use of new technologies. The Law Institutes and the Bar Council should provide greater support, information and training for members on new technologies. All courts and tribunals should provide electronic information to their lawyers for clients. The Department of Justice should be mandated to provide the best possible IT systems for justice. This includes providing the best possible case management system for all courts and tribunals enabling electronic lodgement of documents and providing extensive electronic judicial support.
The Victorian government should evaluate and implement emerging automatic language translation software. The government should ensure greater integration of IT systems between the Department of Justice and other Departments specially the Department of ICT. Having looked at the possibilities IT offers the future of law, I believe the above recommendations represent a pragmatic approach to the implementation of IT.
The author is Asst Professor and Head, Department of Law, Northern University Bangladesh