South Africa‘s justice system goes hi-tech

Constitutional CourtSouth Africa’s Constitutional Court has led
the way in the electronic handling of 
case files.
(Image: Rubino Law)

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Emily van Rijswijck

Plans are afoot to bring South Africa’s judiciary in line with world standards by introducing a new electronic court filing and case management system.

This will drastically speed up all court procedures and deter tampering with case records.

The new systems will be based on those already in use in the US and Singapore.

The recommendations were made during the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development‘s Access to Justice Conference in July 2011 where then Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo formally endorsed the introduction of the electronic filing system.

The new filing system has also received the support of his successor Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who stepped into Ngcobo’s shoes in September.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to an efficient South African justice system is the length of time it takes for cases to appear and to be resolved in court.

The judicial process itself is overburdened because of the growing number and complexity of litigations in the country, loss of important documentation and subsequent delays, and insufficient and poorly trained administrative staff.

Speaking at the July conference, Ngcobo said technological advances have made communication easier. This includes the transmission of documents and the accessing of filed documents. Priority should therefore be given to bringing the local judicial system up to international best practice levels.

“Before, it took hours or days to send documents from one point to another, and now this can be done within seconds via email,” said Ncgobo. “If the proper systems are in place and the necessary hardware available, it is now possible for busy judges to access court documents from anywhere.”

And this is exactly what the new electronic filing system will be able to do. Judges will receive an electronic case file immediately a new case is opened. The file and documents pertaining to the case will be saved on a server and will have certain precautionary features in place to prevent meddling with the information.

The system will also speed up information exchange between the various parties involved in a case.

While case management systems are in place at certain courts in South Africa, Ngcobo advised that a universal system be introduced in all courts.

Used at the highest level

This type of filing system is already in place in the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa in terms of matters relating to the Constitution. Here documents are filed both electronically and in hard copy. As a result, a judge of the Constitutional Court can access any document in a case from any location.

The necessity of streamlining case management and electronic filing became apparent when in 2010 a group of South African judges from various courts and departments went on a study tour to the US to gain insight into case load management in that country.

On their return Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Kenneth Mthiyane and High Court Judges Steven Majiedt and Eberhard Bertelsmann compiled a report. Highlighting some of the findings of the report at the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa conference in October, Judge Bertelsmann said the overhaul would revitalise a criminal justice system “creaky in its joints”.

He said that every step in the judiciary process in the US is overseen by the judge involved, because judges have two desktop computers which help them to determine the timeframe and progression of a trial.

Bertelsmann stressed that introducing the new system will take time as judges will also be required to undergo training.

“We do need to train people to deal with the system, especially older people like myself, who might find it harder to understand the technology,” he said. “All of this is going to take time.”

From manual to electronic in Botswana courts

A similar system has been in place in Botswana since 2005. At that time the judiciary there embarked on the implementation of an electronic court records management system to modernise and improve efficiency of court operations. Before this all court records were handled manually.

Now, case information can be accessed swiftly and properly, showing the exact status of a case at any given time in the judicial process. An added advantage of the system is that it also provides an accurate performance measure of the workload of judges and magistrates.

The electronic filing system also played an important part in and laid the foundation for Botswana’s judicial case management system which was introduced in 2008. This system allows a judge, and not a lawyer or litigant, to set a timetable and monitor the case from its initiation to its final resolution.

As a result, public confidence in Botswana’s courts is quite high, said that country’s chief justice, Maruping Dibotelo, a guest speaker at the October conference.