The State Government has changed the budget for plans that will help SA courts file documents electronically and manage cases online. From an initial amount of $51.4 million in 2014, the government has reduced the allocation to $20.3 million for these projects. 

IT upgrade to courts at the centre of politics last year

In the heat of election campaigns in South Australia last year, the need to upgrade the state’s justice system emerged at the centre of debates between the Labour Government and the Liberal Opposition. The state government proposed a $500 million redevelopment of the Adelaide courts precinct, which will include an on-site IT upgrade to the building, funded through public-private partnership.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Opposition party saw the project as inadequate. If the party gets elected, it promises to implement an IT upgrade for the entire justice system, along with the $500 million overhaul at the courts precinct. The party aims to position the courts precinct as a “justice hub for the whole state” and plans to equip the facility to allow for electronic filing, online case management and videoconferencing.

The Labour government then announced that it will cost $51.4 million to equip all SA courts with the ability to file case documents electronically and to manage cases online, according to Acting Attorney-General Jack Snelling. This amount would enhance in-court technology, enhance case management and transcript systems and allow court documents to be transmitted electronically. Snelling also scrutinised the Liberal party for issuing such a massive proposal without specifying how much it would cost.

After a year, the Labour government has only allotted $20.3 million toward plans to upgrade the IT system of courts. It appears that more than $30 million has been shaved from the initial amount announced during election time. This budget is expected to establish an electronic court management system that will accommodate court documents and information. It will also be used to support the transition toward electronic case management.

Is the new budget for the electronic court management system justifiable? Though there has been a significant decrease in the amount, the government is working to bring IT upgrades to courts because it is greatly needed. Nowadays, a court case only starts in SA after paperwork has been encoded manually into the computer system, said Supreme Court Chief Justice Chris Kourakis. This can delay case proceedings, and essentially obstruct the public from attaining justice. As such, the Chief Justice is encouraging courts to rethink its finances and invest in IT systems to operate effectively and efficiently.

Mountains of paperwork troubling some Australian courts

The problem of filing and managing court documents is not isolated to SA courts. The amount of paperwork at the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court could reach a height of over 78,000 feet if piled together. For comparison, this is about 77 times the height of Sydney Tower and 80 times the height of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne. The case documents are in an archive, and every time each one needs to be retrieved, it can take three days to access the right file. Moreover, there is a fee for retrieval. This process can delay case proceedings further.

As such, the Federal and Family Courts are increasingly transitioning to an electronic management system of court documents. This is very important as the ever-increasing load of paperwork is already straining the capacity of some court registries, according to Federal Court Judge Nye Perram. Moreover, printing pages of documents adds costs to both parties, aside from the other expenses they have during litigation. Most of the time, these pages are “never looked at,” Justice Perram stated.

Though litigation calls for filing of documents, there is an alternative to it that does not require record-keeping. Any relevant documents from the perspective of a participant are exchanged without fuss. In mediation, there is no need for data entry of any form to start the process of dispute resolution. So long as both parties agree to undergo mediation, the discussion can begin. Mediation is done in private, and the outcome is entirely dependent on the decision of both participants.

Since record-keeping is not a requirement in mediation, building an archive for documents is also not necessary. In fact, participants in mediation are granted the “without prejudice” privilege, which means that whatever information or documents they have disclosed during the discussion cannot be used against them in court. This can address the fear that parties may have about mediation, while helping reduce the amount of paperwork that would have otherwise ended up at court registries.

Therefore, mediation can actually help the justice system in its work. Karin Hobbs from the International Mediators Academy confirms this when she wrote that, “[t]he mediation process was not designed to create another layer of litigation in an already over-burdened system.” Since mediation does not require record-keeping, it helps lessen the pile of paperwork at court registries. In turn, this will enable the court staff to devote more time toward case management and to achieve efficiency in their work; which can help ensure that justice is served immediately to the public.