A Look at the Apparent Trend Toward Digital Reform in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemi
By Matthew Farmer, Andreas Baumgartner, and Mark Beer
Introduction - The extent of the Justice Gap Globally and What Citizens Want from Courts:
A study conducted by the Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law has found that an estimated 5 billion people globally have unmet justice needs, referred to as the "justice gap" or "justice chasm" in severe cases. The study, which surveyed 70,000 people around the world, found that most people want solutions to their problems and information about their rights and duties, rather than primarily judgments on who is to blame. They also want fair, simple, and affordable resolution of disputes rather than complex and expensive court cases. Digital court reform presents an opportunity for a large part of society who previously avoided the justice system to have their needs met.
A Shift in the Role of Courts
The global trend towards judicial reform, of which the implementation of technology is a major element, is driven by the desire to address the justice gap and meet the needs of those unable to use or mistrusting of the current system. Modernization of court processes through digital court reform is aimed at improving the end-to-end process and benefiting the public by speeding up decisions, reducing costs, and potentially reducing case backlogs. The shift in the role of courts from strictly determinative to facilitative has led to calls for the implementation of technology to digitize existing systems. The United Kingdom and Kazakhstan are examples of countries pushing for reform. However, while many countries have been striving for these digital reforms, which is an admirable goal, it is worth noting that these efforts have not been without their challenges.
A Comparison of Some of the International Responses to the Pandemic in Relation to Access to Justice
As mentioned above, the development and subsequent implementation of digital court reforms and the development of more effective court processes have generally been slow to take place internationally. However, if courts are to ensure the effectiveness of the overall system, the ability to leverage technology takes on greater importance – and the recent Covid Pandemic has really given a boost to efforts in that space.
Digital Court Reform in the UK
The United Kingdom has made significant progress towards digital court reform in recent years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, several initiatives were underway to modernise the country's justice system and make it more accessible and efficient. In 2015, the UK Ministry of Justice launched the Digital Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Reform Programme, which aimed to transform how courts and tribunals operate through digital technologies. This included the introduction of electronic filing systems, online case management tools, and videoconferencing technology for certain types of hearings. In 2017, the HMCTS launched the Online Civil Money Claims (OCMC) service, which allows individuals to resolve small claims disputes online. These efforts have greatly transformed the way the UK justice system operates and interacts with the public, paving the way for a more digitally-enabled and efficient justice system in the future.
Digital Court Reform in Singapore
Singapore has long been a leader in digital court reform, with several initiatives underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2014, the country's Ministry of Law launched the eLitigation project to digitise the entire litigation process for increased efficiency and accessibility. This included the introduction of electronic filing and case management systems, electronic signature and document management systems, and videoconferencing technology for certain hearings. In 2018, the Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Centre was launched, allowing for the resolution of disputes online through an ODR platform. These efforts have greatly transformed how Singapore's courts operate and interact with the public, paving the way for a more digitally enabled and efficient justice system, similar to what was sought in the UK.
An unlikely success story - Digital Court Reform in Kazakhstan:
Kazakhstan is an unlikely success story to those who may not have been keeping track. Since gaining independence in 1991, the Kazakhstan justice system has seen significant development. At the outset, the justice system was arguably the least developed of the 3 branches of government; however, 30 years later, this is certainly up for debate.
Kazakhstan has a progressive and rapidly developing court system, with a history of implementing technologies to facilitate the presentation of evidence, protect vulnerable witnesses, and streamline court proceedings through the use of video technology and virtual stenographers.
In 2018, Kazakhstan launched an electronic court system allowing for online filing, evidence submission, and hearing scheduling, and in 2019, the country launched an online dispute resolution platform to efficiently resolve disputes without physical court hearings. In 2020, Kazakhstan implemented a digital case management system to allow for case tracking, document sharing, and hearing scheduling, improving system efficiency and transparency. Further initiatives are currently under way, truly positioning Kazakhstan at the forefront. These initiatives have significantly improved the efficiency and accessibility of justice for citizens in Kazakhstan.
Testing the hypothesis:
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital court reform in the UK, with an expansion of electronic filing systems, online case management tools, and videoconferencing technology for certain types of hearings. Singapore has also seen a shift towards digital transformation in the courts since 2020, driven by the need to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and provide a more convenient experience for court users. The Kazakhstan courts have implemented measures to allow for remote participation in court proceedings and have expanded the use of the electronic court system. While the pandemic has been a catalyst for increased digital court transformation, the cost and effectiveness of these initiatives in the UK remains a topic of debate. In contrast, digital court transformation in Singapore has been a positive development, providing greater efficiency, convenience, and access for court users. In Kazakhstan, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for the country to accelerate its digital court transformation, developing and implementing innovative solutions such as virtual courtrooms and online dispute resolution systems to provide more accessible and cost-effective court services to citizens.
Where to next? The rise of artificial intelligence (AI)
Beyond what has already been discussed, the future of digital court transformations presents exciting opportunities for further development and the legal industry as a whole. These technologies have the potential to make the legal system more efficient and effective, as well as reduce costs and improve access to justice. AI and machine learning can automate mundane tasks such as document review and legal research, allowing lawyers to focus on more complex tasks. AI can also be used to analyse large amounts of data quickly and accurately, helping lawyers to make more informed decisions. Additionally, AI can be used to provide legal advice to those who may not have access to a lawyer, ensuring that everyone has access to justice. As the legal industry continues to evolve, the integration of AI and machine learning will become increasingly important in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system.
At the outset, it was suggested that the pandemic acted as a catalyst for the increased rate of the digital transformation of courts around the world, rather than as a trigger that forced courts to begin this transformation.
Looking at our 3 examples, while there had been, and arguably continues to be, varying levels of success with regard to their digital court transformation, this hypothesis appears to hold true. The UK, Singapore and Kazakhstan all already had digital transformation programs underway when the pandemic struck, which were supercharged by the need to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.
While it is perhaps unlikely that we will continue to see digital transformation of the courts at the rates at which we saw at the peak of the pandemic, it will certainly be interesting to see how, if at all, the approaches of countries around the world will change without the external pressure of a global pandemic. Will the internal pressure of the unmet needs in society, or the desire to build a better court system to stay ‘competitive’ be enough? Whatever the outcome, future development in the justice sector will be an exciting one to be a part of.
About the Authors The article is authored by Matthew Farmer with support from Dr. Andreas Baumgartner, and Mark Beer OBE
Matthew Farmer (Photo) works at the Leading Kazakh law firm Seven Pillars Law, headquartered in the AIFC and holds an Undergraduate law degree from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and a Masters Degree in Intellectual Property law from the NTU (UK). Matthew has a passion for technology innovation and is particularly interested in the Web3 space.
Dr Andreas Baumgartner is the CEO of The Metis Institue. As an economic development expert, he is a strong believer in the importance of efficient and effective economic dispute resolution as a major enabler of economic growth, and a key factor is attracting and retaining international investors as well as local business confidence.
Starting his career in politics and at an international law firm, Andreas spent almost nine years at McKinsey & Company, before joining the Office of Tony Blair/Tony Blair Associates, in charge of government advisory activities across the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and beyond. In 2017/18, he acted as Executive Director of the Dispute Resolution Authority of the Dubai International Financial Centre, with a particular focus on strategic priorities, international outreach and advisory activities. Leaving the Dispute Resolution Authority, he co-founded The Metis Institute. In addition, Andreas is a director of StIR StrategyImpactReputation FZE, providing strategy and delivery advice as well as training and coaching to government and private sector clients. He also sits on various advisory boards around the world. Andreas is a graduate of the University of Vienna, Austria, with PhDs in law and economic/social sciences. In addition to corresponding master's degrees (law; international business administration), he holds a master's degree in political science and the European Master of Business Sciences degree.
Mark Beer OBE is Co-founder of Seven Pillars Law, visiting fellow at Oxford University, a professor at Shanghai University for Political Science and Law, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network. Mark specialises in helping to resolve disputes, whether between Governments, companies or individuals. He also Chairs The Metis Institute, which advises Governments on the implementation of dispute resolution reform that promotes citizen-centric dispute resolution.”