Ten-year digitalisation plan for courts could cut case costs by 20%

Programme costing about €112m would replace lever-arch files with computers

Chief Justice Frank Clarke noted that a ‘widespread move towards the digital management of most, if not all, court proceedings, will require a major investment’. File photograph: Collins Courts

Chief Justice Frank Clarke noted that a ‘widespread move towards the digital management of most, if not all, court proceedings, will require a major investment’. File photograph: Collins Courts

 

One of the odder sights down the Four Courts is a courtroom packed with barristers in their black gowns, and solicitors in their best suits, waiting their turn for a quick audience with an overburdened judge.

“Is your case ready to go ahead on the assigned date?” the judge will ask a barrister when his or her case is called. “We’re ready,” one barrister might say, only for the man or woman representing the other party to say there is still a problem.

Sometimes there can be three or four parties involved in a case, so there will be three or four barristers waiting in court, for up to an hour or more, for their two- or three-minute slot to discuss the filing of documents or some other procedural issue.

It is not unusual for there to be both solicitors and barristers in court for these brief discussions. Everyone involved will expect to be paid, and it is the client who will do the paying.

Court cases are very stressful for the parties involved. Yet it is not unknown for people to turn up with their legal teams on the morning they’ve been told their case is scheduled to begin, only to be told there is no judge available. Or to turn up to hear a reserved judgment being delivered, only to be told on the morning that it’s not ready. Again it is the client who ends up paying the cost.

A behavioural economist might suggest that if it was the legal profession that ended up out of pocket as a result of such inefficiencies, rather than garnering more fees from them, the system might have been improved a few decades ago.

In many other jurisdictions, these wasteful procedures have been ended through the use of technology.

Not only does technology allow for the electronic filing of documents and remote case management, it can also allow greater access to information for the parties involved, as well as for organisations such as An Garda Síochána and the probation services.

With many civil and criminal cases now involving huge amounts of detailed evidence, the use of technology can allow the quick accessing of relevant information using a keyboard, rather than barristers and judges switching from one lever-arch file to another, with boxes of such volumes strewn around the courtroom and the judge’s bench.

Efficiencies

According to a document produced by the Courts Service for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and seen by The Irish Times, an envisaged 10-year programme for a massive increase in the use of technology in the courts system, could reduce the cost of running cases by up to 20 per cent.

Increased efficiencies could also lower the cost of using the courts for members of the public (and the State), and help create greater access to justice.

The programme envisages IT, digitalisation and other linked costs of about €112 million.

In a speech at the beginning of the law term in October, the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, noted that a “widespread move towards the digital management of most, if not all, court proceedings, will require a major investment”.

He said he had always accepted the judiciary could not continue asking for more judges without, at the same time, introducing changes so that the best use was made of the resources that were already available.

However, he added: “Ireland has, by far, the lowest number of judges per head of population in the developed world.”

The Chief Justice said he hoped progress could be made in this regard in time for the centenary of the establishment of the courts of an independent Ireland, in 2024.