Digitization of the Court System: Reality or Rhetoric?

Digitization is not a question of replacing judges, lawyers or courts, but assisting them through computer and digital technology. 

by Laksiri Fernando

I was intrigued by the pronouncement recently made by the (non-Cabinet) Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology (MDIIT), Ajith P. Perera, during the debate on the Regulations proposed under the (amended) Judicature Act, that “the Government will be taking urgent measures to digitize the court system as part of its ongoing digitization of State institutions” (Daily FT, 4 September 2019). He has further stated that the “investment in this case will be around Rs. 3 billion and it is part of the integrated national digitization endeavor of the Government.”

Digital Court

I immediately checked the MDIIT website and nowhere whatsoever I could find any concrete information about the government’s efforts to digitize the court system. This is after four (lost) years of the UNF government, if you count the age from September 2015, and not January 2015. I am not specifically accusing the particular Minister, but the vast difference between ‘rhetoric and reality’ has become commonplace in many areas of governance, now for a long time, from the President to the Prime Minister, and then to various Ministers.

National Digital Policy

The Ministry last month, in association with the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), announced a ‘National Digital Policy for Sri Lanka.’ The period specified for the policy is 2020-2025, beyond the present government’s mandate to govern. As a policy document it has many merits, but nowhere in the plan the digitization of the court system is mentioned.

Three priority areas or ‘pillars’ of the policy plan are: (1) Innovative Economy (2) Effective Government and (3) Digital Infrastructure. The digitization of the court system should have come under the second, the effective government. But that is not the case. The following sentence in the Executive Summary under ‘Effective Government’ highlights the main focus: “A series of strategic national initiatives are to be established under this pillar to facilitate the enhancement of digital identification (digital ID), fintech, healthtech, and other similar government-wide services.”

There is no question that Digital ID, FinTech or Health Tech are important areas to develop through government initiative, while in some areas (i.e. FinTech) the public-private partnership should be sought. The digitization of the court system, undoubtedly is the sole responsibility of the government. This is however more of the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice than the MDIIT. On the other hand, if the primary aim is to make the public services easily available to the citizens, then the government should, as a priority area, initiate something like myGov in Australia.

What is myGov?

MyGov in Australia is an online government service/s, including communications, available through the Department of Human Services. It is not like just glorified information or propaganda available in various ministry or department websites in Sri Lanka. Do we have a Department of Human Services in Sri Lanka? No. By name, the closest equivalent is the Department of Social Services, but the purposes are different. Almost all others are self-services (not human services) to the particular ministers.

Most of the web windows are utterly misleading. For example in the MDIIT website (as of 6 September 2019), there is an icon which titles ‘Digital Sri Lanka Initiatives.’ It further subtitles, ‘More information regarding current progress of the Digital Sri Lanka initiatives.’ But when you click on it, what you find purely is a ‘Hon Minister’s Message’! Nothing about ‘initiatives’ or ‘current progress.’

MyGov in Australia is not like that. As it says, without jargon, “myGov is a simple and secure way to access government services online with 1 login and 1 password.” Through that website there are over a dozen of service-areas one can access, of course after registration. Some of these are (1) job information (2) taxation office (3) Centrelink (4) Child Support (5) Veteran’s Affairs (6) Housing (7) Medicare (8) My Health Record (9) National Disability (10) National Redress (11) State Revenue etc. If you are not sure how to use it, you can ask a question from the Digital Assistant (DA) and the DA would immediately answer your question and assist you. I myself have used some of these services, sent communications (letters) and received official replies. That is an efficient way of communicating with the government within the parameters of digital governance.

Some of the information in myGov are your own, like the My Health Record. It is up to you to opt for, and when you consent safeguarding your privacy, all records will be compiled at one place. This is useful for you and particularly your doctors to deal with your medical history. MyGov access app is available from the App Store or Google Plus. No need to emphasize that there is no fee.

Although Australia is predominantly an English speaking country, almost all the information about services can be accessed through over 100 languages. These translations have been possible because all government information are written originally in plain and simple English unlike in Sri Lanka. However, if you want to communicate in another language, you need to obtain translation services, yet free of charge. Translation services are available for over 200 languages.

Broader Perspectives

The above is what can be called an effective digitization of government services, of course with some glitches, on and off. In my experience, these are minimal. There are other country examples that Sri Lanka can follow as suitable to the country and conditions of the people.

No one can expect all or a majority of people to use digital governance in the short run. However, such digitization has many merits particularly for the upcoming youth (both urban and rural), for intergovernmental communication and efficiency, for public-private partnership and also for others. Sri Lanka’s ‘National Digital Policy’ appears to emphasize the Digital ID among others for example. In going for Digital ID (on the mobile phone), however, it has to be kept in mind that there are over 500,000 people, according reports, without even a paper National ID.

FinTech may have many merits from the beginning at least for some people and for some transactions. In Australia, I can do almost all my major transactions online and/or by Visa Card. Motor registration and car insurance are done that way. No filling of paper forms or going to the bank or post office to pay. Recently I went to a specialist (private) doctor, his fee was $ 200 and after paying by card when I came home, the Medicare has already deposited its contribution of $ 132.30 to my account. All these private-public services are linked. If not, you may have to write cheques and wait for the Medicare benefits to come your way or visit offices. That was the past.

There are more innovative ideas circulating in the world. At least we should know about them whether we applying them or not in the Sri Lankan conditions. Mark McNaught (Dr) has come up with the idea of ‘wiki-based constitutions.’ His immediate advocacy of that constitution is for Scotland. In that context, it is also called a ‘Clyde-built constitution’ reminding the superbly built Scottish ships! The advocacy involves the introduction of biometric digital ID and the widespread use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) for voting and distribution of welfare benefits, other than for contract management and treaty modification etc. This is what he calls ‘digital democracy,’ and wants to replace the paper-based Westminster system!

McNaught’s ‘digital constitution’ and ‘digital democracy’ extend to the legal sphere and the court system as well. Estonia and Chez Republic are two new countries that have gone in the latter direction. Of course there are some valid arguments against some of the too idealistic or fancy ideas of digital constitutions or digital democracy. However, the digitization of the court system is not such a fantasy, but a primary need if implemented appropriately and with realism. But in the case of Sri Lanka, it appears that rhetoric dominates without any real progress.

Digitization of the Court System?

I am not sure how many, or anyone, among the judges or lawyers use laptops or iPads in Sri Lanka in their professional work, utilizing the Internet and the World Wide Web. Of course there is no point in having them as showpieces, if the laws, the judgements, submissions, archives and other documents are not digitized or computerized. There are so many complains about judicial proceedings being delayed and miscarriages of justice. Justice delayed undoubtedly is justice denied.

Computerization of the court system, and legal work from top to bottom, could not only expedite legal proceedings, crime control and civic justice, but also ensure common standards throughout the country. Errors and language barriers also might be easily overcome.

Judge Margaret McKeown is considered to be one of the pioneers in promoting digitization of court proceedings in America. Also in many other countries, including UK, Australia, Canada and in many other Commonwealth countries and Europe, computerization of judicial work is proceeding quite well and that is the path that Sri Lanka also should take. One country closer in this connection to us is Malaysia.

Digitization is not a question of replacing judges, lawyers or courts, but assisting them through computer and digital technology. Such computerization and digitization can minimize time, increase efficiency, standardize communication and prevent misplace or loss of (moth-eaten!) records. The court system, established through the Judicature Act, comprises the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, High Courts, District courts, Magistrate Courts, Family Courts and Primary Courts. The levels, the structures and the interlinks are not that simple. While the courts are supposed to be independent, the administrative matters of the courts are handled by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

Therefore the digitization of the court system should primarily come from the Ministry of Justice, of course with the assistance from the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology. Nowhere in the MOJ website, however, the digitization of the court system is mentioned although at various political occasions this was stated by the Minister and various others. In the same website, there is a Message from the Minister, Thalatha Atukorale, but no mentioning of digitization or anything closer to that objective. The Ministry’s Vision or Mission statement does not mention it either.

Then why did suddenly Minister Perera want to allocate Rs. 3 billion for digitization of the court system? It is not at all a sufficient amount to cater to the whole court system. If it is a part of political rhetoric that his leader, Sajith Premadasa, is indulged in these days, it is understandable to an extent. Mr. Permadasa has also stated at Dehiattakandiya recently that he would make all the 6.1 million welfare recipients ‘beneficiaries of the digital revolution’ (Mawbima, 5 September). However if the court system is to be properly digitized it should go beyond rhetoric, and should be based on a suitable action plan.

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