As case backlogs grow and litigation becomes more specialised and technical, placing strain on the justice system, jurisdictions across Australia will increase spending on ICT systems to achieve efficiencies in the justice sector.
The deployment of online dispute resolution technology is becoming integral to the just, quick, and economic administration of justice. Victoria and Tasmania looking to overhaul how civil cases are heard, while New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory are expanding funding allocations to introduce new ways for citizens to interact with the legal system.
Earlier this month, Victoria’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) announced that it will pilot a new “online dispute resolution platform”, which will allow parties in legal matters to have their cases heard and resolved without having to step foot into the courtroom.
In line with a growing trend for incorporating audio-visual technologies into courtrooms across Australian jurisdictions, Victoria’s month-long trial will employ video and file sharing technology to allow parties to attend hearings digitally. According to VCAT, “[t]he online hearing is intended to be the same as attending the hearing in person.”
In addition to acting as a portal for parties’ matters to be heard and resolved, VCAT’s proposed online dispute resolution platform will serve as a one-stop-shop for any interaction with the Tribunal. The portal will include mechanisms for secure and convenient upload, storage, and accessing of files and other documents, as well as means to allow other interested parties, such as witnesses, to attend hearings remotely. VCAT foresees that parties will “log into the online platform from their own device at a location convenient to them.”
VCAT has announced that it “will determine whether to pursue and implement online dispute resolution based on the success of the pilot”, and said that it was “seeking information from suitable providers who can supply the platforms, capabilities and/or specialised resources required to implement effective digital dispute resolution services.” A tender for expressions of interest in the online dispute resolution platform closes on October 4.
NSW has also been at the forefront of digitisation in the justice sector, ahead of all other jurisdictions, including the Federal Government, in justice ICT spending. Since 2014, hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to improving justice’s business systems.
In 2017, the NSW Government invested $19.3 million to update ICT systems in metro and regional courthouses, including new high definition Audio-Visual Link (AVL) technology. The NSW Department of Justice reports that “[a]lmost 70 per cent of court appearances in NSW happen via video link with more than 80,000 AVL court appearances and professional interviews occurring in the 2015/16 financial year.” Funding for AVL systems in NSW courts will continue through 2019, while overall NSW Government funding for ICT initiatives in the justice sector increased by almost $100 million in the last financial year.
Meanwhile, in the Northern Territory, funding towards justice ICT initiatives has grown by $20 million between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, following several high-profile incidents in youth detention centres attributed to “significant failings of the system”, including failures to adequately record and store CCTV footage.
However, not all jurisdictions have enjoyed increases in ICT spending. While Victoria’s VCAT looks to reform the administration of justice, the funding allocated to new ICT initiatives in this sector dropped by approximately $70 million.
Similarly, in Tasmania, where there has been an increased emphasis on improving the justice sector’s ICT capabilities to address shortcomings in the system, funding for new ICT initiatives in the justice sector was reduced from $22 million in 2017-2018 to just $120,000 in 2018-2019. This comes despite the allocation of an additional $2.5 million in funding to the Tasmanian Government’s Justice Connect initiative, intended to reimagine key justice business ICT systems through the creation of a “contemporary ICT architecture” in criminal proceedings.
Infrastructure improvements needed
For VCAT’s vision of a digital courtroom to come to fruition, however, more work needs to be done to close the urban-rural divide and modernise existing ICT networks. In particular, the United Nations specifically cited the speed and quality of Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure as a reason for marking Australia down in its global E-Government Survey 2018.
Some states are already overhauling their telecommunications infrastructure. In March 2018, NSW released a State Infrastructure Strategy (SIS) to complement its ongoing restructure of key telecommunications technologies. The SIS foresees uncontended statewide access to 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload capacity by 2025.
Similarly, the Queensland Government committed $360 million to a statewide communications network overhaul, comprised of 22 projects, in December 2017 to address “outdated analogue networks that are not secure and [which] do not allow cross-agency communication”.