Digital justice: bringing the courts and tribunals online

By David Donaldson

Tuesday November 8, 2016

Just like other parts of the public sector, the courts and tribunals are playing catch up to the business world when when it comes to meeting the public’s expectations of convenient digital services.

The justice system is increasingly looking at how it can increase accessibility and lower costs by moving services online, explains Kathy Laster, former IPAA Victoria executive director, now director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre for legal education, training and research.

The challenges and opportunities of digital justice will be examined over the next two days at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre’s Law and Courts in an Online World conference in Melbourne.

“Expectations have changed, everything is available online … the courts sit out like a sore thumb.”

Some parts of the court system are doing better than others at adapting — the federal court is “reasonably advanced”, Laster suggests, and there’s variation between states, and even within states.

Innovations such as apps for family violence services and legal aid are providing new tools to enhance privacy, dignity and safety.

Government agencies such as ombudsman offices have been working for a long time to divert disputes before they even reach the judicial branch, but the system is still overloaded.

There’s huge potential for digitising some of the dispute resolution currently handled in clogged up courts. Finding a simpler and cheaper way to deal with the vast pile of claims for amounts under $5000 — a majority of all claims — could free up resources and make justice more accessible.

There is plenty that Australian courts and tribunals can learn from both their counterparts overseas and the private sector, too. eBay, for example, is one of the biggest facilitators of digital dispute resolution in the world, says Laster. It even has online juries if the dispute goes beyond a certain point.

One of the conference speakers is the Chief Justice of Rwanda, the Honourable Professor Sam Rugege. He’ll examine the role smartphones have played in transforming legal practice in African countries, which, due to a lack of pre-existing technology, have leapfrogged Western countries in some areas.

Some jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, are moving towards putting certain types of dispute entirely online. This shift from oral argument to digital resolution represents a significant change in how justice was traditionally conceived, Laster says.

Other conference keynotes will look at issues such as design thinking, an important issue given the range of customers in difficult circumstances digital justice services will need to accommodate.

One of the big problems digital should help address is the cost of going to court. “Often they’re accessible for only the very wealthy, or the very poor who qualify for legal aid,” Laster explains. The number of self-represented litigants reflects this, having risen from 3% a few years ago to 20% now.

There are “massive changes” occurring in this space, many led by business, she states.

“Expectations have changed, everything is available online and there’s a big customer-centric focus from all these services. The courts sit out like a sore thumb.”

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