Frederik Waage, a law professor at the University of Southern Denmark, is, along with Hanne Marie Motzfeldt, the author of a new report, funded and published by the Nordic Council of Ministers, examining technological developments and the current level of digitalization in the courts in civil cases, criminal cases and administrative law cases in the Nordic and the Baltic countries. At today’s launch of the report, Digitalization at the courts, in Tallinn Circuit Court, Estonia, he said:
- In sharp contrast to the overall picture of digitalization of administrative case handling, courtrooms and court administrations were for many years remarkably untouched by the general trends of digitalization. The modest level of digitalization in the courts appears to have been more profound in the Nordic countries compared to their Baltic counterparts. In the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania seized a unique opportunity to make digitalization an integrated part of the design of their newly built institutions. The Nordic countries were obviously not positioned to be building new institutions from scratch at the dawn of the digital revolution.
Estonia a frontrunner
A particular focus of the report is the case handling portals which, in various forms, set the frame for the ways in which parties go to court. The ambition is to give the average court user, that is judges, attorneys and court administration staff, a brief introduction to the state of digitalization in the courts in the eight examined countries.
Every country is graded on a scale from 1 to 7 where the state with the most developed court system facilities in December 2021 received grade 7, while the state with the least developed court system facilities received grade 1. The report singles out Estonia as a “clear digital frontrunner” but also mentions Latvia.
Kaidi Lippus, the Director of the Ministry of Justice’s Court Division in Estonia, participated in the launch of the report. She says that the development in Estonia has been “packed with obstacles” and that it is not complete:
- I truly believe that digitalization is a way to strengthen the rule of law and is key to improving the justice system and judicial co-operation. Since the war in Europe was started by the Russian Federation on 24 February, I also see the digitalization of the public sector as a security guarantee and as a state obligation toward its citizens.
In the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania seized a unique opportunity to make digitalization an integrated part of the design of their newly built institutions. The Nordic countries were obviously not positioned to be building new institutions from scratch at the dawn of the digital revolution.
Digitalization is promoted to speed up processes in the courts. Increased efficiency is supposed to contribute to increased legal certainty. Deadlines will be adhered to more strictly, costs will be kept down and many elaborate procedures may be handled using more or less automated procedures. This, in turn, means that centuries-old habits must be changed - and old habits die hard.
Kristín Benediktsdóttir, Associate Professor at the University of Iceland, gave her perspectives on the situation in Iceland which got the lowest grade.
- The courts in Iceland are interested in more digitalization. Although the judicial system and the Ministry of Justice are engaged in a working process to improve the use of digital technology, looking especially to Estonia and Denmark, the cost is a huge consideration for a small nation. Good things come to those who wait.
Eva Storskrubb, Associate Professor at Uppsala University, hopes that the report will further pave the way for digital development in the courts.
- The report is a great initiative and can be a useful basic tool on both an academic and a practical level. I also hope that it can be a stepping-stone for continued and more in-depth comparative research on these issues at the Nordic-Baltic level.
Benediktsdóttir and Storskrubb were both members of the advisory board of the project and, rather appropriately, joined the launch virtually.
Impact of the pandemic
The study also looked at the potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has in many ways contributed to the increased use of digital technology. While it doesn’t show any major change following Covid-19, oral meetings via digital channels like Zoom or Teams have been held more often. According to the report, this development is expected to continue, at least to some degree.
The report was launched at a hybrid conference in Tallinn which concluded with discussions.