Pilot scheme plans for much court work to be done online

Virtual courts: Chief Justice Frank Clarke lays out plan to drag colleagues into 21st century


“Where’s the wi-fi?”

It’s a common question from first time visitors to the Criminal Courts of Justice - the €140 million centrepiece of Ireland’s criminal justice system.

There is none.

The court building, which opened in 2009, has video screens on many surfaces, but the desks are still stacked high with brown folders containing case files which are lugged into court on hand trolleys.

Judgments are handed down either on paper, or more frequently, simply read out. Until very recently, the computer systems in use were 12 years old and no longer supported by the manufacturer.

The Irish justice system has always had a slight fear of technology, but that could be about to change under new Chief Justice Frank Clarke who has laid out a plan to drag his colleagues into the 21st century.

Mr Justice Clarke yesterday announced a pilot scheme that would see large amounts of the work of the Supreme Court taking place online.

Lawyer-less virtual court

The Chief Justice is following in the footsteps of his colleagues in the UK, who are backing the establishment of a fully online court - a lawyer-less, virtual court process that will deal with civil claims of up to £25,000.

Online litigants will upload relevant information to a secure portal. If the case proceeds online, negotiations will be facilitated between the parties to encourage a compromise. If this is unsuccessful, a judge will make a ruling.

All of this will take place without anyone setting foot in a courtroom, and crucially, in most cases, without the involvement of lawyers. The whole process is designed so it can be used by a lay-person with minimal computer skills.

Prof Richard Susskind, technology adviser to the UK’s chief justice, believes the benefits are obvious.

“It’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s easy to understand and it’s less stressful,” he said.

“The problem with the current system is that, by and large, it’s too costly, too time-consuming, it’s too combative and it’s unintelligible. They’re the problems you see in justice systems across the world. Any system that has a 2,000-page user manual has got a problem.”

Reduced costs

The biggest attraction of online courts is the reduced cost of litigation. Cases are shorter, therefore legal bills are smaller. In the lower civil courts, lawyers might not be needed at all.

“It will have to happen sooner or later. I think that’s something they recognised in England, and decided to get on with it,” said Brian Hutchinson, an associate professor in UCD who specialises in the area of technology and law.

If done properly, online courts could drastically reduce the pressure on the courts and the legal aid system. As a bonus, it could also take some of the heat out of legal battles and allow clearer decision-making, Mr Hutchinson believes.

“A lot of decisions are made under pressure on the steps of the courthouse. If it can all be done sensibly, rationally and simply online, there’s the prospect for much better decisions.”

Witness veracity

Some areas of law will never go online, according to Mr Hutchinson. Criminal and civil trials which rely on assessing the veracity of a witness during cross-examination will still require physical courtrooms.

Similarly, it is hard to see cases involving child welfare being conducted through a computer screen. However, that does not mean family law is off-limits. In some ways, the nastier the case, the bigger the argument for conducting everything in cyberspace.

“In some cases it might be better if people didn’t assemble - it’s actually too personal and too combative to appear in person. Doing it online could take some of the heat out,” said Prof Susskind.

“There is undoubtedly scope for online family courts,” Mr Hutchinson said, pointing out that it is already used effectively in New Zealand and Australia.

“An awful lot of family breakdown disputes are measuring or valuing things. Because online it’s dispassionate or disconnected, done at distance, you actually can defuse a situation quite effectively.”

King Charles II

There are many obstacles to overcome before an Irish online court, not least a justice system highly adverse to change - Irish barristers still wear black gowns to mourn the death of King Charles II in 1685.

Some have also raised concerns that online courts would become an economy class service compared to their physical counterparts.

Prof Susskind has a ready-made response to this criticism. “I say it’s the reverse. If I can resolve a dispute more quickly, a lower cost, with less hassle, I think that’s the business class service.”

Mr Hutchinson believes some litigants will be dismayed about not getting vindication or catharsis through their “day in court”, if forced to use an online service instead.

“But let’s not forget a lot of disputes are relatively small commercial trade disputes. People are forced into the situations where they think there’s high-stakes principles involved when actually there’s not.

“Sometimes going to court for that type of thing makes it more fraught with solemnity and complications than is required, I think.”

But there is also the constitutional requirement that justice be done in public, a requirement that may be complicated without an actual courtroom.

“What you probably will lose is the ability to wander down and observe a court case and soak stuff in,” Mr Hutchinson said. “It will change the dynamic of course, but in a funny way it actually makes things more public. If everything is there online, it can be looked at that day by everyone and it remains there.”

In many ways the Irish authorities have already started down that path.

Uncontested wills

A court service spokesman pointed out that much of the business of the small claims court, which deals with civil claims worth up to €2,000, can already be done online, while licence applications and uncontested wills can also be dealt with on the internet.

Other innovations include having prisoners appear in court via videolink for case management hearings, a process one circuit court judge described recently as “like voting in the Eurovision”.

“People will get very nervous that this will be the era of the computer judge,” said Prof Susskind. “It’s nothing like that. There’s no science fiction here. It seems to me online courts are a natural next step.”