The Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act 2016
The purpose of the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act 2016 is to enable and govern the use of electronic technology in court and tribunal proceedings. It is overarching. All paper based processes in existing courts and tribunals may be interpreted as allowing electronic processes.
The Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act is posited upon the concept of functional equivalence – a theory which gives legal recognition to recording systems and their validation in a format other than paper. The Act in many respects reflects the principles that appear in the Electronic Transactions Act 2002 which did not apply to the Court system.
A central focus of the legislation is upon what is called a permitted document. The term “permitted document” means a document, including its associated process, in electronic form that is made by, or for use in, a court or tribunal. The purpose of the legislation is to facilitate the use of permitted documents in court and tribunal proceedings and allow existing references in enactments to documents to include permitted documents.
Not all documents are permitted documents and the legislation at section 4(2) lists those that do not qualify. These are:
(a) a document given on oath or by affirmation:
(b) a statutory declaration:
(c) a will, a codicil, or any other testamentary instrument:
(d) a power of attorney or an enduring power of attorney:
(e) a negotiable instrument:
(f) any notice required to be attached to any thing or left or displayed in any place:
(g) any warrant or other instrument authorising entry into premises or the search or seizure of any person or thing:
(h) any other document specified by the Governor-General by Order in Council made on the recommendation of the Minister:
(i) an item specified in any of paragraphs (a) to (h) that is required to be served by personal service.
The legislation effectively recognises that verification and authenticity of information contained in these classes of documents may only be provided by a tangible paper-based medium.
The Act does not mandate the use of electronic documents, although certain classes of persons yet to be defined in regulations may be required to use them.
The use of permitted documents requires the consent of the person using them although consent can be inferred from conduct. A person may not be compelled nor directed to use permitted documents. Thus, unless a person consents to the use of permitted documents it is paper by default.
Where there are requirements for information to be recorded, be in or be given in writing that information may be in a permitted document as long as it is readily accessible and useable for subsequent reference. This means that an electronic document must be accessible in the sense that it is not in archived or backup format and can be accessed presumably in native file format.
The legislation does recognise the dynamic nature of digital information and the reality that multiple copies may be made of a digital document that are identical to the “first” or source copy.
Where there is a requirement that multiple copies of information are to be provided, that requirement is met by providing a single electronic version of a permitted document and a requirement to provide information in a manner that complies with a paper based form met by permitted document if information is readily accessible and usable for subsequent reference.
Authentication and signature requirements provide a challenge for those used to verification of a document or its contents by a physical kinetic act such as affixing a seal or sign manual. How is that accomplished in a digital context?
Signature requirements for permitted documents are addressed in section 16 of the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act 2016. An “electronic signature” or verification must adequately indicate the approval of the information and must be “as reliable as is appropriate given the purpose for which, and the circumstances in which, the signature is required.”
Importantly, electronic verification of a document is subject to an exception when one is witnessing a document. Witnessing requirements in a permitted document are met by an “electronic signature” if
a) The e-signature complies with the requirements of section 16
b) The e-signature adequately identifies the witness and indicates that the signature or seal has been witnessed
c) The e-signature is “as reliable as is appropriate given the purpose for which, and the circumstances in which, the signature is required.”
If a permitted document requires a seal, that requirement may be met by an electronic seal if
a) The seal adequately identifies the party attaching it and
b) “is as reliable as is appropriate given the purpose for which, and the circumstances in which, the seal is required.”
The language echoes that dealing with electronic signatures. It is to be noted that the requirements for electronic signatures and seals refer to the issue of reliability. Section 19 of the Act sets out certain presumptions as to reliability and an electronic signature is presumed to be reliable if:
(a) the means of creating the electronic signature is linked to the signatory and to no other person; and
(b) the means of creating the electronic signature was under the control of the signatory and of no other person; and
(c) any alteration to the electronic signature made after the time of signing is detectable; and
(d) where the purpose of the legal requirement for a signature is to provide assurance as to the integrity of the information to which it relates, any alteration made to that information after the time of signing is detectable.
However, any other way of establishing reliability is not excluded and may be used.
The Act also sets out rules for the retention of permitted documents , for the dispatch and receipt of permitted documents. These provisions duplicate the provisions of the Electronic Transactions Act 2002. The filing requirements dispense with the requirement that a document be filed in a particular office of the Court and allow for the filing of a permitted document at any place specified in the regulations. In addition the place for filing may be physical or electronic and may be centralised or located within the jurisdiction of the Court or Tribunal.
Some important observations need to be made.
1. Although the Act has commenced it is not operative. Section 6 requires the Governor General by Order in Council made on the recommendation of the Minister to specify the Courts, tribunals or particular jurisdictions of Courts and Tribunals to which the Act applies. As matters stand, no such Order has been made. Once proper systems are in place to handle electronic filing the necessary orders will be made.
2. Will the Act significantly change Court processes. Except for the changes to place of filing rules, things will largely remain the same. This is because the legislation is imitative of existing processes. Imitative use of technology preserves existing processes and procedures but allows the same objectives to be achieved by electronic means. On the other hand the innovative use of technology allows for the introduction of disruptive and different procedures and processes enabled by the new technologies which ultimately result in a transformative and improved outcome.
3. Thus the legislation maintains the model of the paper based court system and adds a limited form of digital communications in the form of permitted documents – an electronic equivalent of paper.
If it was the intention of the Legislature to maintain the model of the paper based court system and add a limited form of digital communications in the form of permitted documents, the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act has succeeded. But in reality the Act neither lives up to its name nor its promise. It does not, as its name might suggest, create or enable fully electronic courts or tribunals. All it allows is an electronic equivalent for paper. All the legislation does is to imitate paper.