It has long been recognized that a truly effective justice system rests on a strong core of independence, quality and efficiency. It should also be noted that an effective justice system plays an important role in attracting businesses and investment to a country, helping it to generate economic growth and social stability. Despite this, however, many legal data ‘transactions’ still take place as paper exchanges, not only in Cyprus, but in the European Union as a whole. In the complex modern world this creates bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the judicial process which is detrimental to both individuals and to businesses. This is particularly apparent where cross-border issues are involved.
Digitalisation and the justice system
The EU has long recognized that digital technologies have great potential to improve not only the efficiency of, but also the access to, justice. Since 2008 the European Commission (EC) and the Council of the EU (the Council) have been working closely together with the intention of establishing several cross-border initiatives in the area of justice. To date one of the most tangible results of this drive has been the creation of the European e-Justice Portal which is a ‘one-stop’ shop containing information on a wide variety of judicial topics and several ‘on-line’ tools. The EU Justice Scoreboard also aims to support Member States in achieving a more effective justice system by providing comparative data on aspects of digitalization across the EU. Despite these efforts however, the failure of Member State justice systems to modernize in a timely fashion was cruelly exposed by the Covid 19 pandemic. Many courthouses in Cyprus and elsewhere lacked the ability to ‘go online’ and simply ground to a halt. Similarly, whilst the more innovative law firms were able to operate in the ‘virtual’ world and deliver ‘alternate’ solutions for their clients, others found themselves unable to function. In short, the pandemic has confirmed that the use of digital technologies has become essential to enable individuals and businesses to have efficient, uninterrupted and timely access to justice. It has also highlighted the fact that many personnel, particularly at the senior level, within the Member State justice systems, also lack the skill set to properly utilize digital technologies when they are available!
EC evaluation of progress to date
Recognising the negative impact of the pandemic on individual Member State judicial systems, and on EU cross border judicial co-operation, the EC has undertaken several initiatives to accelerate the use of technology within the judicial process and to respond to new challenges arising. This commenced with a fact- finding exercise, the goal of which was, to evaluate the existing levels of digitalization of justice at national level within each Member State and at EU level. The exercise made use of existing information and included additional specially designed surveys. Its results have led the EC to conclude that many areas of the justice systems in place across the EU would derive significant benefit from digitalization.
On 2 December 2020, the EC adopted a package of new measures intended to accelerate the modernization of the EU justice systems. The measures rest on two key pillars:
- The communication on the Digitalisation of Justice
- The new strategy on European judicial training.
Communication on digitalisation of justice
This provides a toolbox to encourage the use of digital tools by Member States and to promote the ability of businesses and individuals to have access to justice online wherever their location. The toolbox has four main components as follows:
- The EC will produce a legislative proposal that will digitalise cross border judicial co-operation procedures in civil, commercial and criminal matters. Currently many procedures remain heavily reliant on paperwork and conventional postal systems. It is intended that ‘digital’ will become the default option by the end of 2021.
- Using digitalization in the fight against cross border crime. The case management system of Eurojust will be updated ensuring it can cross check different cases. Recent amendments to the Europol mandate will introduce a ‘hit/no hit’ link between it and the European Public Prosecutor Office (EPPO). The connections between Eurojust, Europol and EPPO case systems will ensure that each is aware of ongoing investigations and prosecutions. In 2021 the EC also intends to introduce initiatives on digital information exchange re cross-border terrorism cases and to establish a Joint Investigations Team Collaborative Platform.
- Providing better access to information by encouraging Member States to digitalise their registers and databases and, to work towards interconnectivity of databases.
- Encouraging all Member States to embrace the existing IT Tools (e-CODEX and eEDES) for use in secure cross-border cooperation. This would significantly improve the speed and efficiency of such operations. Currently, e-CODEX is the main tool for secure cooperation in civil, commercial and criminal cross-border law proceedings but not all Member States have adopted it. The EC intends to push e-CODEX as the gold standard in such secure communications across all Member States and from 1 July 2023 the system will be overseen and maintained by the ‘eu-LISA’ agency. The eDES system (underpinned by e-CODEX) is a digital exchange system used by some Member States to exchange information swiftly and securely such as European Investigation Orders, mutual legal assistance requests and associated evidence in a digital format. The EC intends to encourage all Member States to adopt the eDES system.
Additionally, the EC advocates discussion on the risks and merits of the use of artificial intelligence-based applications within EU justice systems. It also proposes the establishment of a “My e-Justice space” which would offer the public and businesses a portal for a range of national electronic services.
Progress against the goals of the various initiatives will be monitored on a regular basis. It is proposed that the digitalization roadmap will be funded in the context of the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework and the Next Generation EU measures.
European Judicial Training
Responsibility for judicial training is shared between the EC and Member States. Training is developed in conjunction with stakeholders such as training providers and national justice professions’ organisations. The first EU Judicial Training Strategy was adopted in 2011 and since then 1.2 million professionals in EU Law have been trained. The new edition of the Training Strategy, which was announced by the EC on 2 December, broadens the training remit to include topics such as digitalization and artificial intelligence. It is a recognition that skill in and understanding of these and associated issues are essential attributes required to face the challenges of modern life. The strategy also includes ambitious targets. By 2024 it is intended that 65% of judges and prosecutors and, 15% of lawyers will receive yearly training on EU Law and, support will also be given to justice professionals in EU partner countries. A European Training Platform has also begun a test phase and if successful it will become fully operational later in 2021 allowing justice professionals to engage in online training. An EU conference on judicial training will also take place in Spring 2021 to allow for further discussion with and input from relevant stakeholders.
As stated previously, the EC has long been an advocate for digitalization and modernization. The digital toolbox announced should assist the progress of digitalization of justice systems across Member States and improve EU cross-border cooperation. The New Judicial Training Strategy should help equip legal professionals for the demands of the modern world as well as promoting a common judicial culture with the EU’s partners. Undeniably, however, the Covid 19 pandemic has proved to be a much needed and long overdue wake up call for the judicial world. It has significantly accelerated the rate at which the EU justice systems will be modernized. Without it many legal professionals in Cyprus and across Europe would probably be reaching for pen and paper for many years to come!