Can the implementation of Digital by Default reduce the length of court proceedings?

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Dubrovnik, 12 October – A joint project of the Council of Europe and the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration of Croatia, co-financed by the EU under the Technical Support Instrument, provides support for greater application of eCommunication in the Croatian judiciary.

According to the 2023 EU Justice Scoreboard, Croatia is one of the countries with the longest court proceedings in Europe. The project “Digital by default: Optimisation of efficiency and quality of judicial services and transparency of judicial decisions”, implemented by the Council of Europe in cooperation with the European Commission, could ultimately contribute to shortening court proceedings.
Within the Digital by default project, a number of workshops and meetings have taken place throughout Croatia. This week’s workshop in Dubrovnik illustrated the approaches to solving problems across the country, and the workshop attracted representatives of the judiciary, from judges of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia, municipal, administrative and county courts, to representatives of state bodies such as the police and social services, pension funds, IT experts and others.

While improving justice through digitalisation cannot in itself solve the problem of lengthy litigation proceedings, it can certainly increase efficiency and reduce the number of days needed to resolve cases. Judges are among the first of a number of stakeholders to notice the benefits of digitalisation. Judge Gorica Barać-Ručević from the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia pointed out that the benefits of digitalisation will become evident to the end-users of the judicial system – citizens, because it contributes to respecting the “reasonable time” standard with full respect for human rights, especially by achieving a balance between privacy and transparency of the work of courts.
Through this project, the Council of Europe as an international organisation that promotes human rights and counts 46 member states, aims to reduce the number of cases related to Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to an effective remedy. The project promotes the adoption of practices such as electronic delivery of legal documents instead of paper-based communication such as faxing, scanning or delivery of legal submissions by ordinary mail, which certainly slows down the legal process. However, greater speed is not the only advantage. Digitalisation also means increased transparency and traceability of legal documents, as they cannot be misused or lost like they could in physical form, which contributes to building the trust of end-users in the justice system.
Participants in the workshop in Dubrovnik shared their best practices. For example, Ms Katarina Daković, Head of the Legal Affairs Department of the Croatian Pension Insurance Institute, managed a project for introducing digital communication with courts in 2020. She recalled how, after initial resistance, employees and stakeholders got to understand how the changes (from adaptation to new hardware and software to the training of users for work in their local office) had led to the department handling the incoming caseload more efficiently. “The benefits include easier and faster communication with courts, elimination of paper-based delivery costs and greater transparency, as stakeholders across Croatia can search for cases via eCommunication,” she said.
The workshop participants also discussed organisational and technical obstacles to a wider use of eCommunication. For example, some worry that digitised files could be shared with unauthorised persons, in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to privacy. However, the IT experts working on the project clarified that there are tools that effectively block unauthorised persons from accessing private data in court files. A representative of the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration confirmed that no case of a lost digital file has been confirmed since the launch of eCommunication.
The European Commission’s 2023 Rule of Law Report found that the use of eCommunication in Croatian courts last year was increased by 50 % (compared to 2021), especially among lawyers, companies and court experts. In 2022, the High Criminal Court, the High Administrative Court, administrative courts, the Municipal Criminal Court in Zagreb and the criminal divisions of the Supreme Court, county and municipal courts were integrated into the single e-Communication system. For the time being, only misdemeanour courts have not been included in this system, but there are plans to do so.  
eCommunication is currently used by more than 85 thousand users.
The workshops will continue with the aim of establishing digital practices as a default standard throughout Croatia.