Rozenberg QC on the Online Court – A Review

Joshua Rozenberg QC is an English journalist and commentator on matters legal. I have read his articles and commentaries now for some time. He is thoughtful and balanced, unafraid to call it as he sees it. He practiced as a barrister before moving into journalism and was appointed honorary Queens Counsel for his work as the “pre-eminent legal analyst or modern times.”

So it was that I saw a reference to his monograph entitled “The Online Court – will it work?” on his Facebook page. Rozenberg conceded that it was too long for any of his normal outlets to publish but this piece was available for download from Amazon. He hastened to point out that although much of his work is available at no charge the essay was not commissioned, sponsored nor supported by advertising so a small charge of £1.99 was levied at the UK Amazon store and $US2.49 at Amazon.com. A reasonable fee under the circumstances. Just one problem. The essay was available only to UK customers.

I have written before about the bizarre practice of geoblocking in an on-line borderless world. My earlier encounters with this loathsome practice have been in attempts to purchase software and video content. The physical product isn’t a problem. A proxy forwarding address in the US or UK solves most difficulties. However, additional issues arise when one is dealing solely with digital content. Without an English address, obtaining the content seems nigh impossible. What I cannot understand is why Amazon would want to restrict distribution in this way. After all, place doesn’t matter in the delivery of online content. No greater delivery or packaging costs are incurred. No explanation is given for restricting distribution.

However, that said, Rozenberg’s essay makes fascinating reading. He opens his discussion with the background to the current reforms starting with early attempts which were not very successful because they were not judge-led – indeed an essential requirement in any proposed reform of the Courts process. After all, next to Court staff Judges are the principal users of the Court system. Furthermore, when I talk about “Judge-led” I don’t mean that judges should be kept informed about what the IT people are doing, but that the judges actively lead the process. This was enabled in England by the formation of the Judicial Office which was set up in 2006 under leadership of the Lord Chief Justice. The development of a single courts service further assisted. Rozenberg sets out the way in which the current judicial leadership role came to be in a helpful overview.

He then passes on to cover the reform programme of Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCTS) and the three strands of work suggested by Lord Justice Briggs

  • The use of modern IT
  • Less reliance on Court buildings
  • The allocation of some work done by Judges to case lawyers

The allocation of funding in 2014 has remained in place, an achievement Rozenberg attributes to the influence of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.

Rozenberg then goes on to summaries the various projects, numbering in total 21, some of which, like the eJudiciary service, are already up and running. For those of us looking at the English IT reforms from the outside, this is an invaluable snapshot of where things are and where it is hoped they may go. Most of the publicity that one sees about the reforms focus upon the Online Court proposals but Rozenberg makes it clear that this is only a part of the story. I was impressed with the scope of the proposals. I was familiar with the eJudiciary service, having had it demonstrated to me by His Honour Judge John Tanzer in 2015. I was also familiar with the Rolls project but other elements were new.

Rozenberg then passes to deal with the online court which is probably the most revolutionary proposal.  He covers the initial proposals by Professor Richard Susskind and Lord Justice Briggs. The Online Court involves the innovative use of technology. Two paths were available. One was to use technology to imitate the existing system. This would merely be a digital replication of a system that would be recognisable to William Garrow or Charles Dickens. Digital technologies allow for disruptive change. Disruption in and of itself cannot be seen to be an end. But transformation by means of disruption, especially if that transformation improves, in this case, just outcomes is to be applauded.

The Susskind and Briggs proposals change the emphasis of the Court process. In the past, the process has been geared towards getting the case before the Court. That can be somewhat complex and that complexity will invariably involve the participation of lawyers, assisting the litigants through the procedural shoals to a hearing.

The online process is geared towards introducing the possibility of resolution from the very beginning. At all stages of the process resolution is the objective, rather than waiting for the judge to resolve the matter. This the various stages of the process offer opportunities for resolution, rather than being milestones that have to be passed on the way to a hearing.

The issue that has given cause for concern is that lawyers are not seen as essential to the process. Rozenberg covers this real area of concern by pointing out that lawyers will have a different role in the process, rather than being excluded from it all together. The use of an App will assist litigants although there is nothing to prevent a litigant seeking legal assistance or advice. But one of the objectives of the new process is to improve access to justice and if that can be achieved it will be a significant accomplishment and a validation of the use of IT.

Rozenberg examines the feasibility of the system uner the ambiguous heading “Will IT work”. There are two questions posed here. Will I(nformation)T(echnology) work which puts the focus upon the way in which the IT projects are put together. Or will IT (the big strategic plan) work. It is the first question that Rozenberg attempts to answer although, because the projects are IT dependent the answer to one will answer the other.

Rozenberg ends on a cautious note, stating, correctly in my view, that digitising the courts is the biggest challenge to the judicial system in 150 years and it is a reform that must not fail, if the restoration and maintenance of access to justice for those who need it most is to take place.

The essay or publication is an excellent example of the enabling power of technology. A close examination of highly significant and innovative approaches to the justice system by England’s leading legal commentator adds to informed debate. Rozenberg is to be congratulated for taking the initiative to put the information on line. It is a pity that Amazon’s policies limit its accessibility.

But for me the essay was extremely valuable in that it provides meaningful context to the on-line court – an innovation in which I have been very interested since I met and spoke with Professor Susskind about it in May of last year. That broader view, and the scope of the IT projects that are in train for the English system give added weight to Rozenberg’s conclusion. It is clearly written, as one would expect, well worth the £1.99 from Amazon and valuable assessment of the state of English Courts IT at the cross roads.

Live Streaming the High Court

The United States’ efforts to extradite Kim Dotcom and his associates from New Zealand has provided a fertile field for litigation and interpretation of the law. Issues such as the validity of search warrants and whether and to what extent there should be disclosure of information in addition to the Requesting State’s Record of the Case have been as far as the Supreme Court.

Last year the District Court conducted an Eligibility Hearing – a hearing which considers whether or not the Request for Extradition conforms with legal requirements. If so, the matter is passed on to the Minister who will make an Order for Extradition. The hearing concluded that Mr Dotcom and his associates were indeed eligible for extradition.

Unsurprisingly there has been an appeal against that decision, together with an application for judicial review and the appeal commenced before the High Court on 29 August. The case has been set down for four weeks

In yet another ground-breaking development an application to live stream the argument was made on behalf of Mr Dotcom and after argument and opposition from the United States, the application was granted, subject to conditions. The decision of Justice Gilbert can be found here.

This is the first occasion that the proceedings of the High Court have been live streamed – indeed, it is the first time that any New Zealand Court proceedings have been live streamed. There is a considerable amount of interest world-wide in the case, although that said it should be noted that the appeal is highly technical and involves lawyers putting their cases and developing their legal arguments. If you are looking for high drama this is not the place, but if you enjoy highly nuanced and carefully developed legal argument, it is certainly worth a look. The stream is on Youtube Live and the last URL is here.

Live streaming Court proceedings happens in other parts of the world. The UK Supreme Court live streams its  proceedings and archives them as well so that, as Lord Neuberger said, “justice may be seen to be done at a time that suits you.” Other appellate Courts live stream. The Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals live streams argument – all part of open justice and bringing the proceedings of the Court to the people using new communications technologies.Courts such as the US Supreme Court have yet to follow.

Is this likely to become the norm in New Zealand? That is difficult to say. The In-Court Media Guidelines certainly don’t prohibit live streaming but whether or not we are going to see a live stream of a full-scale trial will depend upon a number of factors. An appellate argument involves only the lawyers. No one is giving evidence. There is no cross-examination. There are no issues of privacy or witness anonymity that could be claimed by participants – be they members of the jury or witnesses. A whole range of different factors will have to be taken into account.

Nevertheless, the decision to live stream in and of itself is significant and important. As an example of access to an arm of government – the Court in action – it is excellent and furthers the concept of open justice. It allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection anywhere to see the High Court in action conducting a hearing, minute by minute. That is a dramatic step forward in bringing the business of the Court to the people and is an example of the enabling power of the Internet – a great step forward for the New Zealand Courts.

From Theory to Practice – Software Models and Evidence for the Online Court

In the paper below I look at some of the ways in which technology may be applied to proposals for on-line Courts.

The proposals by Richard Susskind the JUSTICE paper and Lord Justice Sir Michael Briggs are based upon the availability of technical solutions to fulfil the promise inherent in the new models for resolving disputes. I emphasise that in using that phrase I envisage, as did Professor Susskind, the dispute resolution model to function within the established Court process rather than as a stand alone alternative to the Court process.

A consideration of the deployment of technology within the Court process first requires a recognition of the way in which technology can reflect or replace current processes. The Online Court proposals that have been put forward suggest significant process change but represent high level strategy. What I consider is a slightly more practical overview of some of the ways in which technology may be deployed. In addition there are issues surrounding the handling of digital evidence which will require consideration.