Building digital courts - an important task in the Judicial Reform Strategy
These days, the rapid development of information technology offers numerous opportunities for not only improving the efficiency of national governance, but also promoting justice in the world. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (the Industry 4.0) and the rapid development of digital technology have profoundly changed the operation of courts. Reality shows that many countries pay great attention to intensifying the application of information technology to improve courts’ efficiency. In that context, Viet Nam has adopted guideline on promoting the application of information technology and making the most of the opportunities brought by the Industry 4.0 to build e-courts - one of the important tasks of the Judicial Reform Strategy.
The notion of e-courts essentially means the transference of part of the court's activities from the real-time space to the digital space. This notion primarily covers the performance, optimization and development on digital platforms of such activities as internal court governance, publication of court operation, provision of public judicial services to the people, provision of support utilities to improve work performance of judicial titles, connection with and exploitation of databases of national digital platforms, especially performance of e-procedural activities.
E-courts will generate immense benefits for the court system, the masses and society.
Firstly, they will assist in improving productivity of courts. Most of current procedural activities using the time-consuming and labor-intensive conventional methods will be automatically performed on digital platforms or online (from the stage of acceptance of petitions or receipt of case files to the competition of case settlement). This will help improve the courts performance and save labor and time. It also serves as a solution to partially overcome difficulties and reduce workload pressure as the number of cases is on the rise while state payrolls have been downsized.
Secondly, e-courts are expected to enable judges to make more accurate judgments and rulings. Instead of filing cases, referring to legal texts and performing procedural jobs in a manual manner, e-courts will, with artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, help judges and court staff process case files more quickly and effectively, especially in retrieving relevant legal texts and court precedents as well as cases with similar legal circumstances. Furthermore, AI might aid judgments and rulings by setting up a “virtual assistant” during the court, so that the judicial decisions are lawful, quick and accurate.
Thirdly, e-courts will help save labor, time and cost for the people. The people will no longer need to show up at courtrooms during working hours but may exercise their procedural rights and obligations such as filing of lawsuit initiation petitions, provision of evidence and proofs anywhere and anytime via digital platforms. They may also use online services to look for previous judgments, self-analyze data and predict proceeding results before deciding whether or not to initiate lawsuits, thus saving time and cost for involved parties in lawsuits and disputes that need to be settled by the court.
Fourthly, e-courts will facilitate the humane settlement of unexpected circumstances in proceedings. The e-court system allows involved parties, witnesses and lawyers who cannot personally show up at courtrooms to participate in court hearings due to epidemics, illnesses, distance or economic difficulties. Particularly for cases of sexual violence against children, the child victims will not be summoned to courtrooms but have their testimonies taken electronically in order to avoid any direct contacts with defendants, which helps to protect their privacy, and prevent them from suffering subsequent psychological trauma, chronic low self-esteem, or dishonour.
Fifthly, digital transformation will make the operation of the court system public and guarantee its transparency. This is because publicity and transparency are the fundamental requirements of the adjudication. E-courts are expected to aid the publicity and transparency of the adjudication process and outcomes, thereby enabling the people to supervise the whole process of settling cases or lawsuits and raising the people’s trust and confidence in courts.
Sixthly, the supervisory and managerial capacity of the court system will be enhanced. E-courts will serve as an effective tool to facilitate the management and direction by the Supreme People’s Court over the entire court system and by higher-level courts over lower-level courts. Particularly, it will help raise the capacity to supervise the progress of case acceptance within the court system, thus ensuring transparency and preventing negative practices.
Seventhly, operating costs will be significantly reduced. With wide application of information technology, e-courts are expected to save 10-15 percent of operation expenses for the court system. Virtual conferences, seminars and professional training courses organized in differing locations will allow more judges and court staff nationwide to participate in order to improve their professional skills and exchange experience without travel and accommodation expenses.
International experience in building e-courts
Building an e-court system has become a global trend. It is the fact that various countries including the US, Australia, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and China have recorded great achievements thanks to their early application of information technology in the building of e-courts which provide administrative-judicial services, procedural documents, collect evidence and proofs in electronic form, hold virtual court hearings, and phase out conventional procedural activities.
The aforementioned countries’ courts have installed court automation software with modern digital platforms that allow their citizens to perform procedural activities such as filing lawsuit initiations and giving evidence and proofs on the Internet until court hearings are completed. Such software applications also enable the people to supervise the progress of case settlement by the court, thereby raising their trust and satisfaction. Numerous intelligent software applications have been installed to assist judges to study and settle cases, and they can help with the filing of cases, the storage and retrieval of legal information, the lodging and service of procedural documents, judgment transmission, identity verification, and judgments compilation. As a result, the time dedicated to case settlement is shortened by half, approximately. Court management also benefits in the way that court system functions in a smooth, timely and scientific manner. What’s more, technologies are applied in staff management and professional training for judges. Accordingly, information about judges and judicial officials’ recruitments, appointments, promotions and biographies is made public and regularly updated to cater for the work of cadre management and evaluation. It is undeniable that technological application in the building of e-courts has become an irreversible development around the world.
Orientations for building the e-court system in Viet Nam
Building an e-court system to perform and enhance capacity of court management on digital platforms
E-courts will be built to improve effectiveness of internal court management on digital platforms. Digitalization will enable courts to manage the following activities:
Firstly, procedural activities. All procedural activities, from receipt and acceptance of petitions, assignment of adjudication to the final judgments will be digitalized in a computer system. The system may not only have built-in functions of storing information and monitoring procedural activities, but also be able to give warnings and reminders to judges and administrative agencies, so that breaches and errors such as failure to serve procedural documents or observe procedural deadlines could be avoided.
Secondly, staff management. All information about court staff’s recruitments and appointments and their rotations will be automatically updated on the system. Judges can be overseen and evaluated by electronic means. On a biannual or annual basis, this software will evaluate judges according to sets of specific criteria and send notices to court leaders to serve the management work, and concurrently to each judge so that he can know his ranking and try to improve it.
Thirdly, records management and storage. All original records and files will be managed and digitally archived with cloud storage; the digitalization of procedural files is prioritized in the short term. Regular updates on archived records and files will keep them intact for long term with minimum labor and at low expense, which is the basis for AI-based management, analysis and forecast.
Fourthly, professional training and fostering for judges. With the help of information technology, online conferences, seminars and training courses can be better attended, timesaving and inexpensive. The enormous amount of data archived in the e-court system serves as a precious source of knowledge for court staff to self-study jurisprudence. Training activities for judicial staff and students nationwide can be carried out on digital platforms while guaranteeing productivity, quality and efficiency.
Fifthly, statistical work. The digitization of judicial activities aims to serve the regular and irregular reports, statistical data analysis and processing, thereby meeting growing management requirements. Big data storage will be created to cater for the review of trial practices, detection of legal loopholes, breaching, modus operandi of crimes, and evaluation of crime prevention and control and handling of law violations.
Sixthly, management of court budget, facilities and properties. It is essential to ensure strict and lawful management, efficiently exploitation, and waste prevention.
Building an e-court system to provide better public legal services.
The primary objective is to serve the people and provide them with modern, convenient and cost-effective legal services, as follows:
1- Submission of lawsuit petitions, documents, evidence, and receiving court’s notification by electronic means. Once the petition is sent, receipt codes will be granted to the petitioner to track the status of case acceptance and settlement. The issuance, service and notification of court documents can be carried out via personal electronic devices such as smartphones and personal computers in a quick and convenient manner.
2- Online registration for issuing certified copies of judgments and documents relevant to case files. Consequently, involved parties will not have to show up at the courtroom to request the issuance of certified copies of judgments and relevant documents. Instead, they can do this anywhere and anytime.
3- Online court fees, fines and payment service. Proceeding participants may pay court fees in accordance with laws and fines in compliance with the judgment online without having to come to State Treasury offices.
4- Search for information, including notices of case acceptance and judge assignment, schedule for trial, meeting sessions, proceedings, and other information.
5- Provision of public access to court judgments and tribunal decisions for reference and analysis before making reasonable and legal decisions. Therefore, the people may exercise their civil rights and obligations to initiate lawsuits, protest against the first instance judgment and file denunciations, and effectively participate in judicial supervision activities.
6- Provision of legal consultancy services. AI will be applied to build virtual legal consultants capable of helping the people track relevant legal texts and addressing questions about procedures for case settlement. Other online public services should be further developed and online means of interaction with the people should be considered, so that they can participate in monitoring procedural activities and give their feedback to courts.
Building an e-court system to improve judges’ performance quality and efficiency
Building e-courts with application of state-of-the-art technologies will help judges settle cases more accurately and reduce workload pressure. After all, judges’ performance is extremely important since it determines the quality of court operation. Recently, the Supreme People’s Court has put virtual assistants into use with intelligent functioning to assist judges. As real as a personal secretary, virtual assistant is programmed to be knowledgeable about laws and professional operations of the court, work around the clock and conveniently communicate with judges in spoken or written languages via smartphones or personal computers. Virtual assistants can clearly hold significant promise in the context of the Industry 4.0 and become an effective aid for judges. Specifically, a virtual assistant can assist judges in:
- Suggesting legal frameworks including relevant laws, ordinances, decrees and circulars, specific to applicable articles and clauses for case settlement.
- Detecting similar legal circumstances summed up by the Judicial Council of the Supreme People’s Court from trial practices and providing answers in response to these circumstances;
- Identifying relevant court precedents;
- Identifying similar judgments that already came in force for the purpose of reference in priority order: cassation judgments of the Judicial Council of the Supreme People’s Court, cassation judgments of the three superior people’s courts, and other judgments;
- Planning case settlement, e-filing and managing e-files, digitalizing and cataloguing case files, managing tasks, and providing warnings, notices and task reminders;
- Automatically generating template-based documents such as summon requests, pre-trial detention, and decisions to bring cases to trial; and compiling part of the judgments. This will help reduce the manual efforts by 30% in comparison with the conventional processing of justice system cases.
- Analyzing data, verifying information and detecting errors in court judgments and rulings. The system will offer in-depth case analysis, cross-referencing and preliminary examination, evidence and proofs examination, detection of missing proceeding requests and citation errors, judgment analysis and technical errors correction, and detection of logical errors in documents.
- If further developed, the system will be capable of generating analyses, reasoning and legal consideration suggestions with precision, speed and consistency.
- Encrypting and posting court judgments and rulings on electronic portal websites.
Building an e-court system to conduct procedural activities online
E-courts means digital transformation of procedural activities on digital platforms. In fact, developed countries with advanced justice system have been introducing fundamental changes to the procedural codes at the same time as the automation (from case acceptance to completion of case settlement) on digital platforms. Viet Nam’s procedure codes also stipulates electronic and online proceedings at the stage of trial. At the recent second session of the 15th National Assembly, a resolution was adopted to authorize online court hearings. However, more legal efforts should be made to bring into full play the potential of information technology applied in judicial activities.
Procedural activities that can be carried out online include submission of lawsuit petitions, provision of evidence and online declarations, payment of court fees and fines, mediation between the involved parties in civil cases and meetings in administrative cases, first instance and appellate instance trial of criminal, civil and administrative cases, meeting to resolve civil matters (such as requests for parent and child recognition, limiting parental rights to children, guardianship termination), copying of files and procedural documents and court services of documents and notices.
Building an e-court system to contribute to enhancing the openness and transparency of judicial activities
Openness is an essential attribute of adjudicating activities to guarantee the rightful public access to information and serves as an effective tool to control power and a mechanism to exalt judges’ responsibility for exercising judicial rights. To this end, the openness of court operation is a core principle enshrined in the Constitution. The Supreme People’s Court’s Circular 01/2017/TT-TANDTC dated July 28, 2017 gave green light to the media’s participation in and coverage on court hearings, thus improving the openness and transparency of court operation. On digital platforms, following matters must be properly made public:
Firstly, legal system, regulations, resolutions of the Judicial Council of the Supreme People’s Court, court precedents, guidance, and addressing legal problems, thereby facilitating the search for legal documents.
Secondly, assignment of case settlement. The assignment of cases to certain judges will create a legal basis for the internal power control as well as favourable conditions for involved parties to exercise the judicial rights such as filing requests or adding evidence.
Thirdly, acceptance and settlement processes. This facilitates public supervision ability of the people and other proceeding bodies over activities of courts and ensures judgement accuracy and timely settlement.
Fourthly, court hearings (except secret trials of cases specifically stipulated in the law). This is a mechanism for public observation, thus contributing to building a law-abiding society.
Fifthly, court judgments. The publicity of judgments handed down by courts provides the people with reference and a mechanism for court supervision. This also helps to develop a sense of responsibility in judges during trial and settlement.
Sixthly, process and results of judgment execution. This aims to enhance social supervision over judgment execution and delivery of justice.
Seventhly, process and results of considering sentence exemption or commutation (reduction) of sentence. Accordingly, the whole process and results of the consideration for sentence exemption or commutation, suspension or postponement of judgment, and conditional release of inmates will be available on digital platforms.
Building an e-court system for interconnectivity with other digital platforms
E-courts are built with an aim of connecting with digital platforms of the country and ministries and sectors. They can be integrated with the National Public Service Portal, the National Population Database, and data and statistics archive of the General Statistics Office and the Supreme People’s Procuracy, etc. The connection among digital platforms will enable courts to exploit the national databases to better perform their tasks and at the same time share and optimize utilities of these databases in the court system so as toward building a digital society and digital economy and raising effectiveness and efficiency of public administration.
Important tasks to be performed in the coming time
An e-court system requires thorough understanding, strong determination, comprehensive solutions, necessary resources and smooth operation. To this end, five major tasks should be focused in the near future.
Firstly, formulating a comprehensive strategy for digital transformation in the court system
The Party and the State have always attached great importance to technological development as an important driving force for economic growth. Particularly, Politburo’s Resolution 52-NQ/TW dated September 27, 2019, on a number of guidelines and policies for proactive participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution places stress on the task of accelerating the digital transformation. This is the political foundation for building the e-court system. In the context of international integration, the Supreme People’s Court has also committed to completing the building of and operating e-courts by 2025. This requires the Supreme People’s Court to expeditiously formulate and implement a holistic strategy for digital transformation by 2025, with orientations toward 2030. The strategy must set out specific objectives, targets, requirements and tasks. In addition, full awareness of the importance of the digital transformation and e-court system is required. Digitalization in judicial activities is an inevitable trend all over the world, which brings about an opportunity for the court system to perfect itself. Therefore, orientations for building e-courts and key tasks should be clearly mapped out; a roadmap pertinent to each period, economic and technological capacity should be established. Moreover, the strategy should map out a long-term vision, high degree of flexibility and adaptability to the rapid technology development, which means keeping up with state-of-the-art cost-effective technologies.
Secondly, perfecting legal documents
Smooth operation of the e-court system entails a complete and uniform legal framework dedicated to digital technology. Main legislations adopted for e-courts regard e-proceedings; application of digital technology and AI; and organization of the court system, not to mention other relevant regulations.
This legal framework should be perfected in terms of procedural activities, e-evidence examination, restoration of e-evidence, cyber security, court organization and functions, and powers entities involved in e-proceedings, and the role of IT staff in the proceedings, etc.
Thirdly, developing a modern digital infrastructure
Information technology and digital technology infrastructure play an important role in the development of the e-court system. The Supreme People’s Court should devise a scheme on provision of digital equipment to build e-courts. The scheme designed aims at equipping digital infrastructure including input and output devises, stable high-speed transmission lines, massive databases and operation centers; digital platforms for e-court operation and AI-based virtual assistants; training programs for personnel on the manipulation, operation and utilization of e-courts. Given its importance, this scheme should be heavily funded with tailor-made roadmaps for short, medium and long terms, depending on economic and technological capacity. Funding for the scheme could come from the state budget, international institutions and social resources. At the same time, equipment provided for e-courts must meet the requirements on modernity, security, safety, convenience with a consideration of taking a shortcut to latest technologies.
Fourthly, building a contingent of IT-literate judicial officials
It is undisputable that human resource is the decisive factor for the success of the digital transformation and the building of e-court system. Building human resources for e-courts operation should focus on digital technology manipulation, operation and application. Accordingly, not only IT staff but also judges, judicial titleholders and other court staff at all levels, and the people should be capable of technology. Apart from technology, IT staff should be knowledgeable about legal system and court operation. Digitalization should take place in all judicial activities across court system from the Supreme People’s Court to provincial-level courts. In order to attract high quality IT staff, benefits package should be offered. Judges and court staff should have a thorough understanding of e-courts in order to be able to work in the cyber environment. Online platforms will be shared by roughly 800 courts and they only permit judicial officials who are tech-literate to work.
Fifthly, intensifying international cooperation
To date, many countries in the region and the world have made big strides in building their e-courts. Viet Nam has been actively building the e-court system and it has reaped some initial, albeit humble achievements. Cooperation with foreign partners plays a part in building Vietnamese e-courts. This is because Viet Nam can take advantage of advanced technologies. International cooperation will enable the country to get access to financial sources such as official development assistance (ODA), and experiences of developed countries, which are essential to reduce technological gap with other countries and soon successfully building e-court system./.
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