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Courting Technology - A 27 Year Overview

Courting Technology - A 27 Year Overview

When I left practice to join the District Court Bench at the end of 1988, computers were being used primarily for word processing and office administration and accounting, although some of us were developing uses for computers to put together database and legal reference materials. There was no publicly accessible Internet. But some of us saw the potential for computer use within the law. Upon appointment to the Bench I gave some thought to the way that computers could become part of judicial activity.

A very helpful tool that is provided for Judges upon appointment is what is called a Benchbook. This may consist of a number of helpful or summarised guides for commonly encountered issues or problems that a Judge may need to address. Benchbooks were provided in hardcopy and sometimes ran to several volumes depending upon specialist jurisdictions or Courts over which a Judge may preside. Benchbooks are now provided in electronic format.

One of the first things that I did was transform Benchbook material into digital format and I began to develop a number of other electronic reference materials as well. 

I was not the only judge who could see a digital future for the Judiciary and within a year of my appointment there were discussions among some Judges to bring computers if not onto the Bench at least into Judges Chambers. There was a reasonably positive response from the Ministry of Justice and a "Computers for Judges" program was put in place. Early laptop computers - orange screen Toshiba "luggables" began to find their way on to judicial desks. Although these machines may not stack up beside today's high powered slim line notebooks, they were certainly the newest and latest technology at the time.

A group of Judges led by Justice Robert Fisher developed a set of judicial case management and record-keeping tools known as the Judicial Workstation. This utility also had a facility to store decided or completed cases to which reference might later be made. About the time that there were discussions about setting up LANs and WANs for the Courts and the Judges to enable sharing of materials and cases. Then the Internet arrived.

By the early 2000's computerisation was a vital part of the Court process. Case management systems were in place in the back office, decision databases were being developed and digital systems designed to make judicial working more efficient were being developed. 

One of the essential tools for lawyers and judges is an accurate reliable database of caselaw. Pre-digital paradigm, this material was made available in print in law reports but the development of caselaw databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw provided a larger quantity of material that could be the subject of targeted searches. The Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary began to develop databases of decided cases which would be made available for reference by Judges and in time much of this material was made publicly available via the Judicial Decisions Online website.

Parliamentary Counsel's office developed a website providing on-line access to New Zealand legislation. The project was not without its difficulties but the site is reliable, authoritative and provides free access to legislation to all New Zealand citizens who are connected to the Internet.

Sadly some of the early promises of technological innovation have not yet been realised. The paperless court - a goal that has been on the books for many years - has not eventuated, and although there are informal processes available for filing documents electronically, a one-stop website for filing case materials has not yet eventuated. Another tool that was to provide a fully electronic court was the E-Bench which would enable Judges to record the progress of a case electronically rather than on a paper. It is to be hoped that these innovations will be realised in the future.

In my time on the Bench I have seen remarkable developments in the use of technology. When I was appointed virtually all the processes involving the running of the Court were manual, involving handwritten or typed records. Today there are evidence presentation technologies used regularly in Court. The use of audio-visual technologies allows "appearances" by parties and witnesses to take place via video-link. Technology is employed to make the process of giving evidence less traumatic for vulnerable witnesses. Media guidelines have been developed by Judges to enable cameras in Court to cover trials. The Courts have developed a website - the Courts of News Zealand - which provides a one-stop shop to ascertain details of the Courts, the Judges, recent decisions of public interest and court sitting calendars and case summaries. In a very recent innovation, the Courts of NZ have a twitter presence @CourtsofNZ. 

The future is promising for the continued innovative use of technology to improve Court processes and provide proper access to justice for New Zealanders.

David Harvey is a District Court Judge known for his interest and expertise in law and technology. He has authored the leading text on Internet law in New Zealand along with numerous articles. He has presented papers on law and technology locally and internationally. He will soon be leaving the Bench to establish the New Zealand Centre for ICT Law at the Law School at Auckland University.


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