Thursday, July 31, 2008

Australian electronic court system

eCourtThe Federal Court of Australia has introduced an electronic court system eCourt. An interesting aspect of this is that the system is available to litigants (that is people going to court), as well as their lawyers, the judges and their staff. Documents and case details are limited to the relevant parties.

The court has taken a relatively pragmatic and low-tech approach to the e-Court. As an example, e-documents must be "sent" via the Court's home page. Essentially the documents are just uploaded as files to the court web system. There is no provision for emailing documents. eDocuments must be capable of being printed: that is the court doesn't want exotic electronic only formats, just equivalents of paper formats. Those lodging are asked to keep paper copies of the documents (thus assuming paper copies are possible).

Document are not accepted automatically, but have to be checked by a person and are only checked during office hours (thouse after 4:30 pm are considered received the following business day).

Electronic forms supplied can't be filled in using the online system. They have to be downloaded and edited locally using additional software. Forms are provided in PDF and RTF and are not intelligent (needing to be filled in manually or by a program emulating a human operator). Documents can use RTF, PDF, TIF, GIF, JPEG and "any version" of Microsoft Word. Zipped (compressed) files are permitted. It appears that the contents of the documents are not automatically tagged for incorporation into legal workflow systems and must be manually processed when received.

Digital signatures are not used for the documents. Instead a digital image facsimile of the persons autograph is used as a signature. This technique obviously is of little value to authenticate a document. It must be assumed that the user ids and passwords used for the web lodgment system and the encryption used to protect the upload is sufficient. The Court uses SSL encryption (key length?). Apart from this no form of cryptography or other techniques appear to be used to check the integrity of documents against accidental damage or deliberate tampering with documents.

Affidavits are only accepted electronically as "... an image of the document in an appropriate format". This is presumably done on the assumption that it is harder to forge an image of a whole page, than a word processing document which has the image of an autograph pasted into it. While it is more difficult to fake a whole page, it is within the competencies of the average computer literate teenager.

What is incorrectly described as a " file size" has not been set for e-documents at 100 printed pages equivalent.

The Court Registry provides the person submitting the document with a "stamped" copy of the document by email in PDF format. It is not clear what security measures are applied to the emailed document and why the same web interface is not used for returning documents (given the Court does not accept them by email).

Also the Federal Court of Australia is revising its "Practice Note No. 17. Guidelines for the use of information technology in litigation in any civil matter".

By mid 2008, the following were available:

  1. eSearch: public to search of cases.
  2. eFiling: litigants and legal representatives can lodge Court documents , including applications, electronically. The web based system includes an online guide and credit card payment facilities.
  3. eCourtroom: virtual courtroom for pre-trial matters, such as directions and orders by a Judge, with parties and legal representatives participating online.
  4. eCase Administration: for legal practitioners and parties to communicate with court chamber staff securely.
  5. Commonwealth Courts Portal: Web-based services for judges, lawyers, litigants and court staff of the Federal, Family and Magistrates courts. This provides information on current cases before the courts, cases for particular judges, lawyers or litigants, documents filed and orders made.

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