I am republishing this paper now, because it shows that the sort of modernising ideas which the Chancellor of the Exchequer authorised yesterday were being implemented in Singapore 20 years ago. I delivered this paper to the Government soon after I wrote it, so they had no excuse for not understanding the likely savings that would be made if the Treasury was willing to let the judges and the courts have the tools they needed.
A Summary of a Paper delivered by Justice Warren Khoo, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore, to the Second Worldwide Common Law Judiciary Conference in Washington DC, May 1997
1. Co-ordinated Planning
In 1988 a planning group, composed of officers of Singapore’s National Computer Board, began a project to computerise the Supreme Court and the subordinate courts. A new Computer Information Systems Department was then created, charged with the task of implementing the Board’s chosen projects, and working closely with the administrative officers of the judiciary. Chief Justice Yong Pung How, who took office in 1990, gave his personal encouragement to almost all the projects that were developed.
2. The Civil Case Management System
In 1992 a Civil Case Management System was introduced. This case-tracking system used by administrators is used to store data relating to the cases filed at each court. When there has been no activity in a case for six months, notices are generated and sent to the lawyers on the record requiring them to attend a conference with the Registrar, and directions are then given for bringing the action forward to trial, with deadlines given for each step. The system will continue to track the case, and in the event of non-compliance with a deadline, the lawyers will be required to attend a further conference at the court when more compulsive orders may be given.
This system has generated statistics of various kinds which identify weaknesses in the court system as a whole. Steps can then be taken to deal with these identified weaknesses. Two recent examples are the accumulation of part heard cases, and the wastage of trial dates due to adjournments.
3. The National Legal Information System
In 1990 a national legal information system, the LawNet, was launched. It is still evolving. This network integrates systems operated by various public legal agencies, such as the Attorney-General’s chambers and the Registry of Companies, as well as the courts. Subscribers can at present access three broad categories of information. First, the database of current statutes and subsidiary legislation (work is now being done to backdate the information on this database). Second, the database of local judgments published since 1932, as well as unreported judgments, including judgments very recently handed down. The judiciary supplies this part of the database. Thirdly, there is a database of the treaties and conventions to which Singapore is a party. Other items that are available are reports of parliamentary proceedings and a database of information, also supplied by the courts, about cases pending or disposed of, such as names of parties, hearing dates and results, as well as court calendars.
4. The Video Link Systems
Two new facilities described by Justice Khoo in his paper were the bail video link between the remand prison and the subordinate courts, which has been used for bail applications nearly 2,000 times up to the end of 1996, and the witness video link, used for child witnesses and adult witnesses in trauma cases (particularly sexual assault and abuse cases) which has been used in 26 cases up to February 1997.
5. The Technology Court
Another innovation is the Technology Court, housed in the Supreme Court building, which was launched in 1995, and commissioned in March 1997 following a user acceptance test. It was first used for a criminal trial in September 1996, and for a civil trial the following month, and by May 1997 it had been used for 12 criminal and 3 civil trials.. This innovation permits experiments in the use of technology for the conduct of civil and criminal trials, particularly where voluminous documents and exhibits are involved. Evidence can be presented by video, through a combination of computer software and an integrated audio-visual system. Computer graphics and animations can be used to illustrate or reconstruct motor, industrial, marine or other types of accidents. Documents can also be scanned and stored electronically so that they can be readily searched and retrieved. Testimony can be taken from witnesses overseas through the video-conferencing facilities. In September 1995 the expert evidence of a US lawyer in Nevada was received by this means.
Instead of the existing mechanical recording system, which uses analogue cassette decks, a Computer Based Recording System (CRBT), which records witnesses’ testimony digitally as computer files, has been installed to permit a shorter turnaround time. Electronic tags are added to the recording to identify different speakers, and a stereophonic effect will allow listeners to differentiate speakers based on their spatial location in the courtroom. The computer file recording can be transcribed by more than one person at the same time, unlike a recording on a cassette tape, and it is this feature that leads to the expectation that the turnaround time for transcripts will be shorter. The CRBT system, which has not yet been used in a real trial, has recently been upgraded.
6. The Automated Traffic Offences Management System
Justice Khoo also described the Automated Traffic Offences Management System (ATMOS) which is available 24 hours a day and allows people charged with traffic offences to plead guilty and pay their fines electronically.
7. The Electronic Filing System: Phase 1
In March 1997, after a long gestation period, Phase 1 of a new Electronic Filing System was launched. This is the first of four components of a projected system intended eventually to do away with the use of paper documents in the conduct of civil litigation. It allows law firms to transmit court documents electronically to the court registry for filing. This requires a system at the law firm and a system at the court registry. The law firm’s system permits documents to be prepared and transmitted electronically to the registry through a gateway maintained by EFS vendors. The court registry’s system allows electronic documents to be received and processed by the registry: the process may include electronic signing and sealing, acknowledging or rejecting, transmitting the document back to the law firm and receiving it for a hearing.
Service bureaux have been set up in the city which charge a fee for enabling documents to be converted to a digital form and filed electronically. These are provided for the use of litigants in person and for law firms which do not have the necessary equipment themselves, and in the early stages many firms are expected to have to rely on such services. Government is, however, working with law firms to enable them to equip themselves with the necessary hardware, software and communications links (ISDN line) to enable them to operate the electronic system on their own, and lawyers and their staff are also receiving training on the new system. Already a large range of documents must be filed at court electronically, and these requirements are bound to increase.
In due course a sub-system will be available to enable the court registry to serve documents electronically on behalf of law firms, and other components of the system will enable people to search for information about cases which have been concluded or are pending in court. People will also be able to use their own computer terminals to retrieve copies of documents from any court file, past or current. The court rooms and judges’ rooms are currently being wired up for hearings on the electronic format.
As a return for a very large amount of upfront investment, in money and manpower terms, in the Electronic Filing System, Singapore hopes to reap significant benefits from it. The law firms will not have to use valuable manpower for mundane tasks like filing and serving documents, checking court files and obtaining information, and people can be retrained to do more value-added work. The litigation lawyer will be able to work where he likes, anywhere where there is a good phone line. On the court administration side, problems associated with the management of vast amounts of paper – the misfiling and loss of documents, delays in the retrieval of files, and the shortage of manpower and of storage space – will become a thing of the past. The speed and convenience of doing things will also be pluses in the equation, and although they expect unforeseen minuses as well, they hope that they will emerge with significant and worthwhile gains all round.
[A six-page Technology Backgrounder, setting out the specifications of the hardware and software used in the first phase of the Electronic Filing System, is attached to this Summary.]
“Whatever changes the future may bring, we must always remember that justice must be assisted, not dominated, by technology. Technology alone does not improve the system. It is people assisted by technology who make the justice system work. We must be careful not to blindly substitute technology or become slaves of technology.”
Yong Pung How, CJ, 1996.