VirtualCourthouse; Issue 4.5
The Courthouse of the Future
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt
This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter
Over the course of the last several years, many commentators have begun to paint the picture of the future courthouseSome go so far as to anticipate a paperless courthouse. Others describe a virtual dispute resolving process, which is unconstrained by time, place or physical barriers. This discussion has on some occasions created a resistance to change. On other occasions, there has been a healthy debate on the problems facing the Judicial Branch of the Government and how technology can help alleviate those problems. In working through an analysis of the value of technology, it is important to recognize that technology is but one of the resources available to the Judicial Branch of the Government. Where does technology fit into the picture? Before the resource picture is examined, the following factors will be focused upon for discussion:
Mission of the Court is to Resolve Disputes.
The function of the Court is to resolve disputes. The court accomplishes this mission in accordance with the constitution and laws in a fair, just and impartial fashion. www.montyahalt.com/guides/cgujbg/judicial.htm .
Dispute Resolution is Information-Dependent.
In order to resolve a dispute, the Court needs information. The information generally consists of: (i) the pleadings filed in court; (ii) the facts evidence; and (iii) the law.
Information is Provided Through a Process.
The information necessary to resolve the dispute is a result of a process, which consists of two principal components. First the process is sequential. That is, the information is provided piece-by-piece over a period of time. Until the process is complete all of the information is not present. Secondly, the process is adversarial. Each piece of information is subject to challenge, dispute and response by an opponent.
The resources necessary to accomplish the core mission of the Court are:
Many commentators and policy makers are pointing to some glaring deficiencies of the current dispute resolution process. The documented complaints fall into four categories:
1. The process is slow.
2. The process is too expensive.
3. The process is unnecessarily mysterious.
4. The process is too adversarial.
Roberta Katz, General Counsel for Netscape and a noted anthropologist, has written an extraordinarily helpful book, Justice Matters, www.discovery.org. In Justice Matters, Ms Katz analyzes the historical foundation for the court system and its current effectiveness. In her book, Ms. Katz points to several of these deficiencies especially the perception of unfairness and a breakdown in the adversarial dispute resolving process. “It is clear it has always been clear that the legal system does not function with mathematical precision. Because of differences in legal skills, because of the room for maneuver afforded by rules, and because of the inexact nature of precedent, opportunities for unfairness and injustice coexist with their opposites. But, increasingly, Americans feel that civil litigation is not being conducted fairly and that this unfairness goes far beyond the ‘traditional’ and occasional injustices. Over the past few years, many Americans especially those who have extensive contact with the system have begun to feel that unfairness is systemic. See Justice Matters, page 29.
“Still, in this context, the problem is not why people sue. It is how the system has come to handle the load, the growing burden of legitimate, frivolous and predatory cases. The sad fact is, the civil justice system, in its present form, is both dysfunctional and obsolete. Dysfunction and obsolescence make possible the other abuses, and permit those who exploit and misuse the system to make large profits from it.” See Justice Matters, page 40.
The Virtual Courthouse — Providing a Digital Bridge for the Legal Community.
The virtual courthouse will contain many historical components. First, it will be a physical structure with physical courtrooms. The historical symbolism which has demonstrated the importance of the concepts of justice, fairness and authority will maintain continued importance and value. Winston Churchill stated: “First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” However, technology holds great promise to reduce the amount of space needed in the Courthouse of the future because of the dramatically reduced need for paper storage, handling and processing.
The virtual courthouse will contain an environment with less paper but will not be paperless. It will enable some of its disputes but not all of its disputes to be resolved in a virtual world unconstrained by place, time or physical barriers. The virtual courthouse will contain an electronic case file. It will require fewer people and will be faster. The litigants will be able to access online information about the process of dispute resolving which will lessen the mystery and reduce the significance of local differences.
It is clear, however, that the promise of technology will not provide solutions for many of the deficiencies in the dispute resolution process. Indeed, technology may exacerbate many of the problems. With all of the efficiencies created by the personal computer it is clear that the volume of paper has been greatly increased by the use of the personal computer. In planning for the virtual courthouse, great care must be taken to guard against this potential misuse of technology. Nonetheless, technology can be a powerful resource in court reform that leads to a fair, impartial, speedy and just result.
The dynamics of failed government services including dispute resolution are causing many citizens to seek alternate legal systems. So the demand for gated communities has dramatically increased. These managed private communities along with homeowners and condominium associations provide clear-cut property rights and many governmental services.
On the cyberspace front, the Internet is creating its own set of rules and legal processes to handle inappropriate conduct. So there has developed the Virtual Magistrate, Internet Neutral and the Online Ombudsman’s Office Legal Space. See also www.cato.org.
by Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt – May 1999