Putting justice on the line

27 Mar 2003

Anyone involved in a court action will be able to use email to file claims, submit legal documents and pay fines once a five-year plan to modernise the judicial system is completed.

There are also plans for a ‘virtual courtroom’, where people will be able to contribute to a case via the internet without having to appear in person.

John Coyle, head of the IT division of the Courts Service, says the initiative aims to speed up operations and increase access for citizens. “The implementation of this plan will enable us to deliver on the Government’s policy to enable citizens to conduct business with state bodies via electronic means,” he says. “It will greatly improve the administrative processing of cases in all court offices throughout the State and will equip staff in offices with the administrative and technological tools to provide an enhanced level of service to all users.”

The judicial system has faced criticism for its archaic structure and reliance on paperwork, but the new plans mean the prospect of a paperless court may be just years away.

Some aspects of the five-year strategy are already in place. Just recently, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Hewlett-Packard completed a €1.25m project that involved the provision of directory, desktop and email services across 70 Courts Service offices in 43 locations throughout Ireland and the reconfiguration of the judges’ intranet. It involved the installation of Lotus Notes email and Microsoft XP to 1,000 staff systems around Ireland. A feature of the installation is a judges’ intranet, which provides them with access to case law and precedent. This will be available to judges across all jurisdictions.

Coyle explains that within a period of two or three years the Courts Service has come from a point where most buildings throughout the State were just cabled to where most have shared systems up and running. “The local and wide area network project was completed [by PricewaterhouseCoopers] at the end of last year and this links all our offices throughout the State to a single integrated communications network,” Coyle explains.

The strategy also aims to deliver a set of business applications. These include a criminal case management system and a civil case management system.

The criminal case management system, which has already been implemented in Dublin and Limerick District Courts by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Fujitsu Consulting, aims to manage and track all prosecutions on an online system. According to Coyle, additional enhancements will include the facility to list cases electronically, integrate with the gardaí, prison service, Chief State Solicitors Office and other elements of the criminal justice system.

The civil case management system is a new integrated business application to manage, monitor control and track civil business, including family law cases, across all court jurisdictions. This application will replace both manual systems and a number of legacy systems currently operational within the service.

The deployment of IT is already having a profound impact on the work of judges. Coyle gives the example of bench books – guide books complied by judges themselves as an aid to their work. “These books are made into CD-Roms and they contain all of the up-to-date legislation regarding relevant acts, judgments and so on. With the new technology judges don’t have to carry a car boot full of books around with them when they go into the circuit, as it is all held on computers,” he says.

There are also plans in place to establish an online Small Claims Court. “Effectively the system will enable a person to make an online claim and we envisage that claimants will be in a position to obtain updates on the current position of their claim,” says Coyle.

The courtroom of the future is likely to be radically different from those we know today, but will these new technologies impact on the administration of justice?

Coyle explains: “While modern technology can provide many advantages in terms of delivering an enhanced level of service both to the justice community of interest and to the citizen, it is important to recognise that technology is only a means to an end. To quote the Chief Justice [Ronan Keane] in his foreword to the strategic plan, ‘we will ensure that our desire to deploy modern information systems and technologies will never impact on our ability to administer a system of justice that is fair, equitable and accessible to all regardless of technological skills and background’.”

Regarding security Coyle insists that measures to combat breaches, such as the recent SQL Slammer Worm that shut down the e-voting system in the Dáil recently, are in place. “I would be a very foolish person to guarantee that security is 100pc,” he adds. “Nobody I think can guarantee that, but we have all the up-to-date security software in place that monitors our systems in terms of preventing virus attacks. We are very conscious, from a Courts Service perspective, of the importance of security in the overall context of the administration of justice.”

These developments are leading almost inexorably to the development of a paperless court, but with costs originally estimated at €68.5m now running to €109m and given the current economic climate, will this strategy be implemented on time and with the financial backing needed?

Coyle is adamant that it will. “We are two years into the plan and we have made quite remarkable progress in terms of what projects we have completed. We have received all the financial resources that we have required to date and we would be confident of those resources being available in the future as well,” he concludes.

By Lisa Deeney

Pictured: One of the Criminal Courts in the Dublin District Court, Chancery Street, where PCs have been recently installed