Northern Ireland – acceleration of a digital justice system
Ambitious proposals contained in a recent tripartite paper by the Department of Justice, the Office of the Lord Chief Justice, and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service, have revealed plans for significant investment in the Northern Ireland justice system.
The overall vision is of a digitisation of the entire court process, aiming to put Northern Ireland at the forefront of the new digital legal world.
Whilst these plans were well under way prior to the pandemic, the necessity for online justice has now accelerated. This programme aims to build upon the adaptations which have been put in place over the course of the last 12 months. In the last year, justice has gone online with virtual case management, interim application hearings, and remote mediations and trials now commonplace.
The Commercial Hub (the court which predominantly deals with cases valued above £30,000 that relate to engineering, construction, banking, professional indemnity, D&O, and any other commercial actions as the Commercial Judge may think fit) is aiming for a paper-light, and ultimately paperless system. It is envisaged that the other court divisions will follow suit once the Commercial Hub successfully trials its new systems.
A new e-discovery protocol will place the duty firmly on litigation participants to actively manage the volume of documentation. This is to ensure that it is relevant and proportionate to the issues, or face costs sanctions.
In conjunction with this digitisation process, significant investment is also being proposed to go towards the infrastructure of the courts service. This includes the latest video conferencing and case management software, which will allow trial participants to view and search electronic trial bundles. This will also reduce the friction of locating and referring to documents during the course of a virtual hearing.
It will be necessary for lawyers and clients to buy into this process as they will ultimately benefit from the savings in time and costs that these new efficiencies will bring. However, practitioners must be cognisant of the potential pitfalls of online justice, not least ensuring that there are adequate security measures in place to protect their clients’ data. The ability to assess the credibility of witnesses in an online court setting has also been raised as a concern, as well as the ability of vulnerable witnesses to provide their evidence in a safe and secure setting. Where there are concerns of this nature, a degree of flexibility should be afforded to ensure that those who wish to avail of a physical court room should have that option available to them.
The digitisation proposals are also in addition to a recent consultation launched by the Department of Justice on increasing the jurisdiction of the County Court in Northern Ireland from £30,000 to £100,000. If these proposals are introduced, there is a risk that without wider reform, the County Courts could become overwhelmed by the number of additional cases, including lower value professional negligence and D&O claims. However, it would bring the benefit of a more streamlined process into the Commercial Hub that would come with increased capacity to deal more efficiently with larger value claims.
Overall, we welcome these proposals which will assist in driving efficiencies in time and costs for clients and ensure that the Northern Ireland Justice System is fit for purpose in today’s digital world. These reforms build upon the successful introduction of the Commercial Hub in 2019. The Hub has already brought an increased efficiency to case management through the early involvement of the court, more robust enforcement of directions and an increased focus on costs management.