Role of ICT in modernising the Judiciary

ICT pix judges1In almost all countries, the Judiciary is regarded as the third arm of government empowered by the constitution and the laws, and vested with the judicial power of the nation.

It has the sole responsibility of interpreting the Constitution and laws, administering justice and providing other related services. The Judicial Service as a Public Service Institution is the organ responsible for the day to day administration of the Courts and Tribunals.

Like other sectors, information technology (IT) has become an indispensable tool in the world today.

In the words of Martin Bangeman, “Throughout the world, information and communication technologies are generating a new industrial revolution already as significant and far-reaching as those of the past. It is a revolution, itself the expression of human knowledge.

Technological progress now enables us to process, store, retrieve and communicate information in whatever form it may take, unconstrained by distance, time and volume.

This revolution adds huge new capacities to human intelligence and constitutes a resource which changes the way we work together and the way we live together.”

The question one may ask is the relevance of this information revolution to the judicial system? The use of information technology within the judiciary offers several advantages.

First, it will help improve access to justice. It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. In societies governed by the rule of law, gaining speedy access to the legal system is expected. The application of information technology in the judiciary can help improve access to justice by improving court procedures and practices, thereby minimising delays.

Secondly, the use of information technology in the judiciary will promote the efficiency of judges and the courts. In most courtrooms today (especially in the developing world), proceedings are still written long hand by court clerks.

In today’s computerized world, some courts have introduced audio-recording of courtroom proceedings. This makes it easier for judges to write courtroom briefs by making references to the audio recording anytime there is uncertainty in the records.

Third, the use of information technology within the judiciary will strengthen public trust and confidence. With increasing Internet access in most parts of the world and the availability of mobile Internet, the public can have access to judgments of the courts if placed online. Copies of such judgments can be put on CDs and DVDs and made available to district court offices.

Fourth, the use of information technology in the judiciary will facilitate the sharing of case information among judicial units while ensuring its availability to the public.

With the availability of a number of mailing lists and internet relay chats dedicated to legal discussions, members who subscribe to these sites can always pose legal questions online with the expectation that somebody somewhere will respond to the issue.

Additionally, with the availability of extensive legal reference materials online, trial lawyers and judges can access these sources to enable them improve upon the efficiency of their operations.

Fifth, the use of information technology within the judiciary will facilitate electronic filing of briefs, lawsuits, and judgments. People have a stereotyped view about our judiciary systems being slow, rigid and not transparent.

The use of information technology in the courtroom can help change this impression and the judiciary can became more open, transparent, efficient, fast, responsible and user friendly.

Several IT applications could be implemented to transform the judiciary system. This range from simple technologies such as audio recording, audio and computer conferencing through more advanced technologies such as biometric identification, the creation of a court network system and a virtual courtroom environment.

For example, biometric profiles of the accused, sureties, witnesses and other court users can be kept in an online databank. The use of biometric readers can help identify the profile of criminals and accused persons. This can expose people who stand sureties for a number of accused with false identities.

Similarly, a video conferencing system implemented will enable the courts to take information from dreaded criminals without transporting them from their jail to the courtroom. The technology can facilitate simultaneous trial of accused lodged in one jail.

Dictation capturing software could be used to save time and to expedite judgment writing. For example, Dragon Natural Speaking software is now widely used in most courtrooms in the West to capture spoken information. The used of Dictaphones could be adopted by the judiciary to process information.

Also available is technology for fast scanning of court files. After scanning the files, OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software can be used to improve upon the quality of scanned documents.

Wi-Fi networking is another technology that could be used in the courtroom. Judicial buildings should be established as Wi-Fi zones to facilitate Internet access without the hindrance of cables and wires.

Additionally, the availability and use of financial package software could assist in the calculation of court fee, fines and witness expenses. This could minimise corruption and waste in the judicial system. The system could be used to generate periodic financial statements for the judiciary.

At the district court level, touch screen technology could be employed to make judicial information available to people. This will reduce travel time for people who have to visit the courts to learn about the fate of their cases.

The implementation of information technology system in the courts must rely on the concerted efforts of all-judges, judiciary administrators, court users, system developers and information technology experts. Training is very critical to the success of any IT programme in the judicial system. There must be a comprehensive training needs analysis among judiciary employees to assess their IT training needs.

Change is always a threat to established order. But, change is inevitable in life. We need to change the mindset, habits and behaviour of those working in the judiciary who are used to standard operating procedures.

Judicial workers should be made to appreciate how information technology can assist them in their work. It is also important to let administrative staff in the courts know how information technology can enable them to perform their duties and serve the court users better.

Today, we have become a global learning society – a world that demands new knowledge, new thoughts, new frameworks for problem-solving, and new ways of doing things.

As such, our judicial system must conform to what prevails in other parts of the world. Due to this, it is imperative that Africa looks beyond its jurisdiction and learn from experiences in other jurisdictions around the world.

All in all, we need to move from a manual court system to an electronic court (e-court) system where there is less paper used in the courtroom, where most of the court proceedings will be based on audio-visuals and video, and where most trial lawyers and judges can make use of computers and electronic gadgets in the courtroom. This e-court and e-filing system already exist in USA (the COURT 21 project is a good example), most European countries, and Australia.

The Judiciary has a duty to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by information technology to offer a professionally excellent service to the community.

ICT WORLD
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Dr. Osei K. Darkwa

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