Accessing Justice

I write this on 1 September 2017 and New Zealand is in the throes of an election campaign. I dislike the way that this has all developed. The politics of personality rather than policy seem to predominate. The news media whip themselves up into a frenzy – speculating on poll outcomes, the shape of Parliament with little thought about what is going to happen to the country as a whole. Because of our bizarre electoral system deals have to be struck which could mean that a minor party often gets the final say on which party governs.

The contest is between two centrist parties. National is slightly to the right of centre – Labour to the left. National can point to a record of experience in government – the last nine years on the Treasury benches. Labour can point out all the things that have gone wrong or which have been left unattended – not the least among them problems with sufficiency and cost of housing and associated problems of inequity within society. One thing you can guarantee with Labour is that they will spend more taxpayers money and they will put up taxes. With one exception in the 1980’s this has been their model.

Both parties have an unspoken premise and that is that they advocate social justice and that is generally achieved as far as National is concerned by macro-economic policy and by Labour by throwing large amounts of money at the problem.

But there are other justice issues – ones that particularly concern me. They are fundamental access to justice issues. Putting it simply, the model that we have for a state-provided dispute resolution system hasn’t changed since Dicken wrote “Bleak House” in the nineteenth century. The system is complex, paper-based, arcane and requires expert assistance in the form of lawyers to navigate the intricacies of the system and to bring a case to a hearing.

I see it as part of the State’s obligation in a society like ours that values the Rule of Law to provide an effective and accessible system for the resolution of disputes between citizens. And this isn’t happening. The cost of entry to undertake a civil dispute that is beyond the jurisdiction of the Disputes Tribunal will inevitably involve a lawyer and litigation lawyers do not come cheap.

Over the years there have been a number of inroads into the availability of legal aid both for criminal and civil matters. The reality is that legal aid will not be available to many in the middle socio-economic groups which acts as a disincentive to pursue what might otherwise be a valid claim.

Those who are bold enough to represent themselves – and they have a right to do so – see Louise Grey “Not for the Faint of Heart: The Right to Self-Representation in New Zealand” (June 25, 2017). Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper, Student/Alumni Paper No. 25/2017.   – have to navigate through the procedural complexities contained in the High Court or District Court Rules which effectively are 600 + page “user manuals” for specialists.

So as the politicians have been promising the electorate the earth – or dodging the detail as seems to be the case with the Labour party – I have been waiting to hear what is going to be done about the fact that a substantial sector of the community does not have access to justice.

There are solutions available. The problem is that the system is anything but amenable to change. This is reflected in the fact that the use of technology – when it is made available – is within the context of the existing “Bleak House” model. Thus we have systems that imitate paper in the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act which I have critiqued here and the practice notes for the use of Electronic Common Bundles and Electronic Casebooks.

The Courts (Remote Participation) Act 2010 addresses some aspects of the “tyranny of distance” but is still premised upon Court provided AVL technology (rather than the multitude of AV applications such as Skype) and a centralised location where business must be transacted – the Courthouse although to their credit some Judges use Skype for case conferences.

Part of the problem is that because we operate a “paper by default” system geographical location for the purposes of filing and storage of the “court file” remains a primary factor in the management of litigation. “Digital by default and by design” means that the association of kinetic files with a geographical location no longer determines where the file is located and where material must be filed. It eliminates the need for a Courthouse as the “back office” for litigation management.

But even although the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act provides for the use of digital material there is nothing in that legislation that suggests that the “Bleak House” model has changed. In addition there are no facilities for electronic filing, notwithstanding that there have been a number of unsuccessful and expensive attempts by the Ministry of Justice and its predecessors to implement them.

I would like the politicians seeking my vote to think about and address the issues surrounding the fact that citizens are being deprived of access to justice for economic and procedural reasons not to mention a lack of expertise in the way that the system works. Considerations such as more availability of legal aid, a better resourced hearing system, less delay between commencement of proceedings and a hearing would be a start.

The problem is not with the Court or with the Judges, but the system itself which I have characterised as the Bleak House model. When this model comes into collision with the realities of the digital paradigm, speedy progress becomes difficult.

In  England proposals for a “digital by default and by design” Court for low value civil claims (less than 25,000 pounds) is being seriously considered. The use of digital systems has enabled those advocating the system – Professor Richard Susskind and Lord Briggs – to revisit the litigation model with some radical proposals. The court hearing before a Judge (which would be done online) would be the least desirable outcome. Instead resources would be deployed using online systems, legal expert systems, predictive analytics and machine learning to provide litigants with some indicia of the success or otherwise of their claim, and guidance on what to do to proceed with the matter should a claim be made. The emphasis would be upon conflict resolution, conflict containment and an identification of the real issues – all done on-line with the assistance of a skilled mediator. The proposals are premised primarily upon litigants representing themselves, although they can seek the assistance of a lawyer should they want to. But the cost of entry – legal expenses and court costs – would be eliminated.

Such a model is more in keeping with the realities of the digital paradigm and deploys technological solutions for an innovative revisiting of the litigation process.

Last year I discussed these proposals with some of those seeking election. I have heard nothing further. None of the parties in their answers to questions put by the Law Society have suggested any concrete proposals to look at some of the systemic fundamentals of the Court system.

The irony is that later this month I shall be at a Conference in the United States discussing these very issues – There seems to be more of an appetite for innovation in the state based Court process elsewhere than in New Zealand.

A further irony lies in the facts that alternative dispute resolution has been around for a while and taking ADR processes online has been a recent development. In this regard the Complete Online Dispute Resolution Service (CODR) has recently been established by Michael Heron QC. This service has had some positive outcomes – and a backgrounder to the service may be found here .

One wonders if private innovation is going to overtake and replace the State’s obligation.

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