What does the court of the future look like?

Imagine completing an entire court case without ever visiting a courtroom and without leaving any physical paper trail. Is this scenario the court of the future, or is it science fiction?

California Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming W. Chin posed that question to legal and technology experts during the American Bar Association webinar “The Court of the Future: Use of Court Technology in the Next Generation.”

“We are going to look into a crystal ball and see what effect advances in science and technology will have on the future of our courts and our justice system,” Chin told participants. “In a time of budget cuts and deficits, technology offers us the best option for improving our courts while conserving our scarce financial resources. However, if we wish to be on the right course, we must plan effectively now.”

Snorri Ogata, chief information officer for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the scenario that Chin described is completely possible as far as the technology is concerned. “All of this technology exists today, and so what’s changing really is our attitudes toward this technology,” he said. “We really need to understand that the legal industry is not going to be immune to this change.”

Ogata detailed how, with modern technology, all participants in a trial — from the lawyers to the judge to the jury — could connect via the Internet from different locations, sensors could allow the judge to monitor jurors’ attentiveness and heart rate, a transcript could be created in real time, and the whole process could be recorded for future use.

In an effort to take advantage of such new technologies, New Jersey is working to establish a statewide, unified e-court system. Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said an e-court system requires a foundation of effective business principles and a focus on the needs of court users.

Grant suggested following business principles such as:

  • Modify, consolidate and simplify.
  • Do not restrict improvements because of existing rules or practices.
  • View data as an electronic court record.
  • Capture data at the earliest stage of process.
  • Promote open, Web-based systems.
  • Focus on customer use and avoid over-sophistication.

“Putting on a new system simply because it has the latest bells and whistles is not a successful formula for having a truly successful e-court effort,” he said. “It will not be possible to develop a very strong and robust e-court system without a clear vision for the future.”

Grant stressed the importance of making sure the key consumers — lawyers and judges — play an integral role in the evolution of the system. Achieving judicial buy-in was the biggest challenge for the New Jersey e-court system, he added.

“Getting judges to not only embrace the new system but really to become advocates for the change in how we do business was critically important,” Grant explained.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said technological advances are changing judges’ routines by altering the process by which they get information, the amount of information that they receive and the ways they deal with that information.

“Technology is impacting more than the scope of the record. It’s impacting more than the ease with which lawyers and parties can present their case to the appellate courts,” he said. “It is, in some ways, creating an issue about some of the fundamental principles that we have followed for centuries in appellate law.”

Specifically, Magnuson discussed the ways that modern technology could affect judicial notice, posing questions about whether a judge can conduct independent Internet research relating to a case.

As the legal profession begins adopting new technologies, Chin noted that officers of the court must pay special attention to the ethical implications.

“The legal profession is, of course, a traditional one. It is derived from centuries of practice,” he said. “We are also notoriously slow to change and adapt, but the court systems are changing, and as technology dramatically transforms other industries around us, it is only a matter of time before the legal profession transforms as well. We ought to make sure that our transformation is not only ethical but that it utilizes technology to its highest potential.”

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