A 1999 Australian report on the prospective impact of information and communications technology on the justice system presented a vision of how technology might result in a new paradigm of ‘e-justice.’ Since that report was written, Australian courts have had nearly two decades of experience of the introduction of new technologies. This chapter discusses the experience of e-justice in Australia to date and argues that it still has some way to go to achieve the goals set out in the 1999 report. It suggests that, to date, the implementation of information and communication technology (ICT) in courts has largely concentrated on enhancing traditional methods of delivering justice. The innovative potential of technology is something that courts are still coming to terms with. In particular, courts have been slow to embrace the possibilities for the delivery of new kinds of services that will transform the nature of their relationship with users.
In 1999, a seminal Australian report by the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform Committee on the prospective impact of information and communications technology on the justice system predicted that:
Developments in technology offer the opportunity to transform the justice system into an accessible, inexpensive, transparent and efficient system, which is responsive to the needs of the community. The effective use of IT in the justice system can entirely change the relationship between courts, governments and the public. …technology can ensure that everyday legal issues are processed without the need for expensive legal advice or long court processes. …IT offers lawyers the opportunity to be world leaders in their chosen field and offers judges access to the best resources possible to make appropriate decisions. (Parliament of Victoria, 1999, p. 23)
The report was visionary. It pointed to the potential of new technologies to improve and enhance the operation of the justice system. More significantly, it presented a vision of how technology might result in a new paradigm of ‘e-justice.’
Since that report was written, Australian courts have had nearly two decades of experience of modern information and communications technologies (ICT). ICT is being deployed to enable parties to file cases electronically, to assist courts in managing cases and workflow, to time-table hearings and allocate hearing rooms and judges, to provide judicial support and enhanced research capacity, to enable courts to receive evidence from remote locations, to organise and display evidence more efficiently in the courtroom, to provide faster and more efficient communication between the court and the parties, to provide a record of court proceedings, to publish the decisions of the courts, to provide better information to court users, to exchange data between justice agencies, and for many internal management and organisational purposes.
This chapter argues that the use of ICT in the court system has not yet resulted in the transformation envisaged in that 1999 report. While application of ICT in the court process is routinely justified by reference to the goals it put forward, and while technology may have made some contributions to achieving those goals, in general, it has not yet fulfilled the report’s vision of ensuring that everyday legal issues are processed without the need for expensive legal advice or long court processes.
It suggests that the reason that the transformative potential of new technologies has yet to be fully realised in the Australian court system has to do with an emphasis that has been placed on using ICT to support existing court practices and procedures. It argues that change, to the extent the committee envisaged, will only come about as courts embrace the possibilities that technology offers to provide new ways to deliver justice.
The chapter will also discuss some of the issues that are arising in the transformation process, identify areas in need of research, and refer to some current Australian research that is being conducted in relation to one area of particular importance.Top
The Australian Experience
‘Technology’ has been defined as referring to applications of scientific knowledge (Australian Law Reform Commission, 1998, [1.8]). For the purposes of this chapter, ICT is taken to encompass a range of computer and telecommunications technologies, including data processing (electronic retrieval, storage and management of data, document imaging), data management, communications services (telecommunications generally, wireless, video-conferencing, electronic mail, the Internet, virtual private networks, voice over Internet, collaborative Web technology), groupware and workflow systems, voice recognition, and artificial intelligence or expert systems.
In discussing the application of ICT in the Australian justice system, it is important to bear in mind that Australia has a federal system of government, so it has 10 separate but inter-related legal systems: the Commonwealth, six states, and three self-governing territories. The following discussion will provide an overview of the development and use of ICT in Australia as a whole, rather than a detailed analysis of each jurisdiction.