Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Brave New Cybercourt (1)

Governor John Engler of Michigan put his state squarely on the Brave New Cybermap: Michigan has the world’s first cybercourt. Or does it? And if so, what of it? Does it do us any good?

The court was created by legislation passed in December 2001, which became law on January 9, 2002. Here is the press release on the signing of the law. Electronic document filing, Web-based conferencing and virtual courtrooms would be part of the cybercourt. This would reduce travel time and costs and resolve disputes relatively quickly. The initiative was heralded in the press.

Let’s take a closer look at the portal for the court.
In the Michigan cybercourt, a judge (no jury will be involved) will hear business and commercial cases in which the amount in dispute exceeds $25,000. Decisions can be appealed to the (noncyber) Court of Appeals. The court's jurisdiction is concurrent with that of other courts. The plaintiff can therefore choose whether or not to sue in the virtual court. Any defendant who objects to the case having been filed in the cybercourt can seek to remove the case to the ordinary court.. The dispute must be within the jurisdiction of a Michigan State Court. Any dispute arising that crosses the boundaries of the state of Michigan would have to be heard by a noncyber federal court.
Lawyers will be able to file their briefs online, argue their cases and appear in court via videoconference, and present evidence via streaming audio and video. Cybercourt judges will be trained in the use of the latest technology.

Comments in the legal press and welcome the idea of appearing in court while not in court. Somehow, they like the idea of appearing in court in their pajama’s! On the other hand, they say it's hard to envision how any proceeding that takes place online could adequately replace the face-to-face closeness of a physical courtroom. A witness' testimony is often more important than mere words, and body language surely can't be read as well in two dimensions, regardless of how advanced streaming technology becomes. And, although many Internet cases involve technologies that can be displayed online, how could a cybercourt allow a judge or jury to physically examine a piece of hardware that might be vital to a case. In how many cases does that really happen? The cybercourt website does not tell us. We keep searching. In our search, we will circle the globe, keep watching this space!

The Singapore Subordinate Courts deal with a considerable number of e-commerce cases. They offer mediation as part of their service. They feel that reconciliation and cooperation is part of their culture, rather than adversarial, contradictory proceedings in the Western tradition. Mediation is generally held to be a practical way of dealing with disputes between parties who have to continue their relationship. Go here to see for yourself. The mediation process is conducted via e-mail. Its outcome is a settlement of the dispute by the parties. If not, formal action can be filed.
E-mail is very low-tech compared to the snazzy stuff of the Michigan cybercourt. And yet, it is sufficient to support mediation. 5.000 e-commerce cases were mediated in 2001, and more than 9.000 in 2002, according to the annual report of the courts. Frankly, one of the good things about the Singapore courts is that we can find these data without difficulty.

How much do we need high tech dispute resolution support? The Netherlands judiciary deals with a little over 300.000 commercial cases each year. More than 70 % are uncontested small claims. Witness hearings are conducted in less than 3 % of all cases. So, a little technology can go a long way.