Our international editor for New Zealand, David J Harvey, reviews changes in the use of court technology in New Zealand
In a recent article in the New Zealand Law Society publication LawTalk, the CEO of the Ministry of Justice, Andrew Bridgman, looked at the English Court Modernisation project and discussed what is happening in New Zealand.
Mr Bridgman suggested that people should come before process and a “people first” approach drives service design. This could be taken to suggest that there has been a recognition of the opportunity for innovation of court processes as part of an overall improvement to the citizen’s access to justice. Mr. Bridgman, however, looks at what has been achieved so far. All of the processes described make it easier and quicker for the user to progress through the justice system.
The examples that he gives are as follows:
1. It is now possible for people to dispute their court fines electronically rather than going to court. Now, people don’t need to leave their home (or to paraphrase Lord Justice Fulford, they can apply from their laptop on their kitchen table in their rabbit-eared onesie). Applying online has greatly reduced the time to receive an outcome, from three weeks to within three days in most cases.
2. In 2016/17 more than 18,000 remand appearances were conducted by Audio Visual Link between courts and prisons and most district and higher courts have access to video conferencing technology to enable witnesses in New Zealand and overseas to give evidence remotely.
3. In 2014 a centre was established for the dissolution of marriages and civil unions and civil claims for judgments. Applications for dissolution are now actioned within 24 hours. Prior to the establishment of this unit it would take six weeks for the application to be processed. This is what could be called a “back office” improvement.
4. In 2017 the Ministry redeveloped its website to make it a core service delivery channel and create a platform for future online services. It’s now easier for people to get information online anytime including on a tablet or mobile phone.
5. In 2016 the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act was passed enabling and governing the use of electronic technology in proceedings
6. In 2015 the Ministry also initiated text message reminders so those appearing would receive reminders about an upcoming court appearance. 5,550 people have signed up to the service.
There are also some examples of technology improvements for the judiciary.
E-Duty is a facility that allows for urgent without notice applications in the Family Court to be dealt with by an assigned judge rather than being dealt with on an “as and when a judge is available” basis.
The software which makes all this possible was designed by a Family Court judge and then further developed and enhanced by Ministry IT staff. The software and processes enable judges to review and decide on urgent Family Court applications within an hour of receiving them.
Mr Bridgman referred to the use of electronic casebooks in the Court of Appeal, including the ability for judges (and counsel) to make their own annotations. He referred to the introduction of the Caselines electronic bundles to the Crown Court in England and Wales. The New Zealand use of electronic documents has developed from practice notes from the High Courts and using a program such as Adobe Acrobat or Foxit Phantom.
Although this means that counsel no longer need to rifle through the ubiquitous lever-arch folder to locate a document, they are still using a digital imitation of such a folder. The absence of an ability to use the Cloud or for all documents to be loaded into one place and be accessed by the parties (with varying permissions) is not available. A truly innovative approach would have been to deploy the Caselines model.
For a couple of years judges in the Court of Appeal in New Zealand have used touch-screen laptops or tablets to store and access books on appeal and use these in court. Once again, this is an imitation of the court file but it does provide added flexibility in the ways in which judges may work and where they may do so.
Interestingly enough, Mr Bridgman considered that the English modernization project was a “Big Bang” solution and commented that such an approach was not favoured in New Zealand. He prefers an incremental approach, observing that change is only helpful if it actually improves things. Technology should be a tool rather than an enabler in itself. That said, however, the opportunities that technology provides for innovation of process should not be understated nor overlooked.
If the examples given by Mr Bridgman are of an incremental approach in some respects they are similar to some of the changes that are taking place in England. I was interested to see Joshua Rozenberg QC’s Gresham Lecture of 20 February 2018 “Justice Online: Getting Better” and to hear of some of the developments that are taking place in England. I certainly had the impression that, although there had been a significant amount of progress in deploying IT systems, the approach was an incremental one rather than a “Big Bang”. The incremental approach was certainly recommended in the Susskind\Briggs proposals for the Online Court. It will be interesting to see how this develops further.
What is really significant about the deployment of IT is not only the fact that existing processes may be digitized but that IT systems provide us with an opportunity to be truly innovative in the way in which our court processes are undertaken. The Susskind\Briggs proposals were just that – changing the emphasis of the civil claim from the hearing as a destination to a resolution process as a required preliminary. This writer awaits further development with great interest.
David Harvey is a former Judge of the District Court in New Zealand. He is currently the Director of the New Zealand Centre for ICT Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland and has written extensively on Law and IT topics.