Australian e-Trials and Paperless Courts

For several years we’ve heard about tablet computers being handed out to members of the judiciary and pilot paperless court e-trials being conducted. So how far away are Australian courts from becoming completely paperless courts?

Litigation isn’t showing any signs of slowing, with the number and complexity of matters filed in Australian courts continuing to rise each year. The 2012-2013 Federal Court of Australia annual report alone cited a 50% increase in total filings since 2008 and approximately double the number of trials exceeding 10 days since 2009. In light of such figures, courts are taking a serious look at what technology can do to benefit the registry and the courtroom.

Digitisation to improve productivity

It’s widely recognised among the profession that court digitisation, despite its costly outlay, is capable of improving the productivity of courts and the ease with which parties can access and manage court documents. It is also seen to be able to reduce the time spent by lawyers and their administrative staff producing and sharing hard-copy bulk.

At this stage, most major courts around the country have some digital capability and are committed to a long-term improvement project. However, progress towards completely paperless courts has largely been hampered by a lack of funding.

On the other hand, some jurisdictions have accepted that the savings are in the spendings. As a result of pressure from the federal government to cut costs, the Federal Court is expected to initiate stage one of its Electronic Court File (ECF) program later this year, making the transition from paper-based information management to digital files.

Paperless courts in the near future

Phil Hocking, chief information officer of the Federal Court, recently told the AFR, “We’ve reached the point now where it is certainly possible for us to create a fully electronic court file.”

The first stage of the ECF program is expected to be complete by the end of 2014. It will culminate in a completely paperless court file base, meaning mandated eLodgment in all state registries by mid-2015. This is also the direction of state courts around the country, with the Victorian Supreme Court paving the way to web-based case management with its RedCrest program.

According to the Victorian Minister for Technology, Gordon Rich-Phillips, the change is anticipated to “transform the process of recording, storing and providing access to court documents, bringing about significant cost savings”.

A new wave of e-trials

As a flow on from increase use of e-discovery and e-litigation tools by practitioners, there has also been a push for paperless e-trials, which can now be accommodated in the Federal Court, and to varying degrees in most state courts including Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.

Most of these jurisdictions actively encourage and facilitate the use of e-trials for matters involving high volumes of documents. However, the Federal Court reports that e-trials still remain the exception rather than the rule, and their use in recent years has been confined mainly to complex commercial cases, which are document heavy and involve multiple parties. It is anticipated though that e-trials will be used more widely in the coming years.

Having regard to current funding woes, there will no doubt be increasing pressure for courts to fully capitalise on the technology that has already been implemented and to continue to improve their electronic capabilities such that they can start to remove costs associated with paper-based procedures and improve productivity.

So although we are still a little way off being a paperless profession, the momentum is expected to continue in the next few years and practitioners should prepare for increased utilisation of electronic options in litigation.

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