The fifth recommendation of the CJAG Report is that: "The Scottish Government should ensure that its digital strategy includes consideration of the use of IT in delivering justice services." The fact that this needs to be stated is perhaps a little worrying - the digital economy is growing at an extraordinary rate, and it would seem obvious that the justice system should track the developments in that sector.
The fact that an entire chapter of the Gill Review was devoted to information technology highlights the importance of reform in this area. However the review itself acknowledges that the Scottish civil courts lag behind many jurisdictions in their use of IT. It is clear from both the Gill Review and CJAG Report that modernising the IT systems available and facilitating their use will be key to any successful reform.
The Gill Review considered four key areas in respect of IT:
- e-filing and electronic document management;
- telephone conference calls and the use of email;
- courtroom technology and the presentation of evidence; and
- access to justice and electronic information systems.
By introducing a system of e-filing and electronic document management, the court process would be brought into line with what is becoming increasingly common in business. Documents are commonly exchanged and revised electronically due to the speed and flexibility this affords. A practical example of this in the court process is the introduction of the County Court Bulk Centre in England and Wales. Designed to deal with high volume, undefended actions, this centralised approach reduces processing costs which are reflected in the reduced court fees.
Telephone conference calls and email are also encouraged by the Gill Review, however have met mixed review in the civil courts. Concerns have been expressed about the use of telephone or e-mail under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires that proceedings should be held in public. In practice however, their use has be largely welcomed due to the increased efficiency and flexibility it allows a court, the ability for the principal solicitor to attend rather than a local agent, and reduced costs for the client. However these should be seen as small steps in a longer journey towards wholesale adoption of technologies which allow a speedy and low cost mechanism for resolving disputes.
What is most disappointing about the review carried out was the continued focus on the existing systems and processes. Prior to the publication of the Review there was talk of rationalising court structures and processes, and possibly even relocating courts. These have not made it to the final published version. While the increased use of IT in the justice system is to be commended, if the underlying system is not rationalised then IT may simply complicate the system rather than make it more efficient.