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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
You can sue online, but try e-mailing a judge

By Jon Silverman
Home affairs analyst

We were promised an ambitious scheme to put public services online, but Tony Blair stands accused of still not speeding up the antiquated wheels of justice with computers.

PM Tony Blair launching the No. 10 website
"It says 'The following addresses had permanent fatal errors: fidelc@cuba.com'"
What does Prime Minister Tony Blair have in common with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe? He is in the tiny club of world leaders still lacking an e-mail address - despite promises from Downing Street to set up a suitable inbox.

Like his 1960s predecessor, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair was determined that the political revolution he intended to usher in was accompanied by a technological one too.

To that end, the government has pledged that all its services are to be made available electronically by 2005, with key services attaining "high levels of use".

Anyone who uses the civil courts in England and Wales may wonder what has happened to this promise. The fact that it is a long way from being fulfilled seems to reflect ministerial obsession with crime and criminal policy at the expense of civil justice.

Courting the web

It is true that the key providers of services and policy makers - the Lord Chancellor's Department, Court Service and Civil Justice Council - have a website presence.

You can get hold of important judgments, find details of hearings, and sue online (more about suing later on). But trying e-mailing a court and you will simply find that you can't. Venture inside a court building and the computer technology is primitive compared to what you would encounter in a bank, building society or virtually any dispenser of services in the commercial sector.

Courts still can't be e-mailed
"You don't spell out D-O-T, you just use the full stop"
Take one glaring example. There is a software programme for managing cases - called Caseman. But it is a DOS-based system at a time when, almost universally, the world has embraced Windows technology.

As Louise Lawrence, of the Lord Chancellor's Department, candidly puts it: "The first thing people say is: 'Where's the mouse? How do I use this?'"

Others go much further in their criticism. Tony Guise, president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association, says: "The DOS system is antiquated in capacity and it's with us by virtue of a government lacking in real commitment to improving civil justice."

To support his claim, he cites the allocation of 90m over three years to drag the civil courts into the 21st Century when the criminal courts got 230 million in the same bidding round.

Losing business

Fraser Whitehead, chair of the Law Society's Civil Litigation Committee, warns that inadequate facilities in the commercial court are driving international users away from London as a trial centre. And business once lost is next to impossible to win back.

It doesn't have to be this way. A recent delegation to Dublin - including the head of the civil courts, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips - was impressed by the commitment of the Irish government to develop e-justice.

Tony Guise, one of the visiting party, said: "The Irish are determined to make the Republic an e-hub and, unlike the UK Government, they're going about it passionately.

A computerised US court
Exhibit A: US courts have computers
"But to be fair, there are some success stories on our side of the Irish Sea. In one of three e-pilot schemes, at Preston, applications to judges can be made by e-mail rather than through the post. Whereas paper-based claims take between 25 and 30 days to process, the electronic version can be turned around in 10."

And then there's on-line suing. Money Claim Online, the government's first interactive web-based service, has been running as a pilot since December 2001 but, to many, remains a well-kept secret. It enables people suing for sums under 100,000 (and in sterling) to do so electronically rather than carrying armfuls of files up the court steps.

All such claims are processed through Northants County Court. On behalf of the Lord Chancellor, Louise Lawrence says modestly: "We are rather proud of this service and see it as a signpost to the future.

"Alone, it won't banish the Dickensian nightmare of Jarndyce v Jarndyce [a case which dragged on for generations in Bleak House] from our courts. But it's a start."

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20 Nov 02  |  Technology

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