‘Start small’, says US judge
The conference also heard from Judge Scott Schlegel of the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal (who appeared remotely), who discussed the design and management of his online court, which is described as “one of the most advanced” for delivering justice online.
Judge Schlegel urged legal systems to “start small” when thinking about using technology, saying that he had started by introducing an online calendar for his court.
He said that legal systems should first look at workflow issues and ask themselves: “What do I use in normal life?”.
The judge also told the conference about the safeguards he had put in place for online appearances – including checking that he could see witnesses’ hands, and ensuring that nobody else was in the room with them.
On the barriers facing poorer people who could not participate virtually in court processes, he said that ‘access points’ had been set up in places like local libraries.
Overall, he urged attendees to “fail quickly” and then move on. “Unless you’re willing to fail, you’re not going to get there.”
Frank Clarke told the conference that technology could lead to greater efficiency, which, in turn, could lead to lower costs, adding that cost was one of the most significant barriers to access to justice in Ireland.
Clarke, who is chairing a group looking at reform of the civil legal-aid system, said that there needed to be a significant increase in access to good-quality and easily accessible information at an early stage, to help groups that were harder to reach.
He warned, however, that “an over-concentration on doing everything online may, equally, exclude people”.
Pointing to the difficulty of getting to courts in some parts of the country, Clarke said that systems that helped minimise the extent to which people wasted time in “having to go to places they don’t need to go” would be a small contributory factor towards improving access to justice.
Cindy Carroll of the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (pictured) spoke about how the organisation had overcome initial resistance to remote or hybrid hearings during the pandemic. There were only six such hearings before Christmas 2020, but now 87% were being carried out remotely.
She outlined the challenges and concerns that faced the tribunal as it moved towards greater use of technology during the pandemic.
Carroll pointed out that many applicants were in places where they did not have privacy or access to devices, adding that broadband connectivity also remained a concern, though the situation had improved.
She told the conference, however, that, in some cases, applicants were more comfortable with remote, rather than physical, hearings, when the disclosure of sensitive personal information was involved.
Importance of data
Frank Clarke and Sarah Benson (Women’s Aid) stressed the importance of improved data.
“Making decisions about how to allocate resources without having the data can lead to wrong decisions being taken,” said Clarke.
He pointed out that the Courts Service’s annual report showed that the District Court handled between 400,000 and 500,000 matters a year, “but that doesn’t really tell you anything”.
Within those big numbers, there were matters that needed a lot of time, he said, and others that could be dealt with relatively quickly.
Sarah Benson described the need for better data as “absolutely crucial” for the issue of domestic and gender-based violence, as it could provide information on issues such as trends, the gender of perpetrators, and sentencing comparators.
She told the conference about a pilot scheme being carried out in Tipperary, whereby applicants could make remote applications for ex parte protective orders without having to attend court. She said that it was early days, but that it had “huge potential”.
Stephen Collins, senior solicitor with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said that, as some concerns about the use of technology had eased, new ones had emerged.
He pointed out that not everybody had access to personal electronic devices, nor the space to use them, citing the example of asylum-seekers.
“There’s still a challenge to the legal system to use technology to facilitate access to justice for people who might not otherwise be able to avail of it,” he stated, referring to people with disabilities, functional neurological disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and people with restricted mobility.
The conference also heard from Siobhan Long (manager, National Assisted Technology Training Service, Enable Ireland), who told attendees about the technology available to help people maintain their independence and functionality.
She urged practitioners to look at the National Disability Authority’s guide to making documents accessible, and to consider providing video guides in some cases. She added that it was also “crucial” that people using communication devices were given sufficient time to respond to questions.
Aoife Kelly-Desmond of Mercy Law Resource Centre (MLRC) told the conference that there was no one solution to access-to-justice barriers, citing limitations on legal aid as one of the main problems.
A review of the centre’s own methods of delivering services found that remote working had bridged a geographical gap in access to services outside of Dublin.
Kelly-Desmond also told the event that MLRC had worked to reduce the complexity of documents, which was a barrier to people with literacy issues. She added that technology had a big role to play in reducing language barriers.