By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Chief Justice is targeting the total digital transformation of the Bahamian court system through a multi-year “e-services” roll-out designed to “catch up with where the rest of the world is”.
Brian Moree QC told Tribune Business that “you cannot put a price tag” on the planned judicial overhaul given its potential to positively impact virtually the entire Bahamian economy and society.
The first reforms will focus on eliminating the bureaucratic, paper-based filing of court documents and replacing this with a technology platform that will allow them to be submitted electronically.
Mr Moree, arguing that it was “simply impossible” to run the judicial system without such a platform, said the initiative will “reconstitute” all court registries in The Bahamas and lead into the development of electronic case management, fee payment, scheduling and other digital services.
Pledging that all changes will be “sustainable” and implemented over a two to three-year period, the Chief Justice said the objective was to provide swifter, more efficient and less costly access to justice for all.
He added that this would boost The Bahamas’ ability to attract the high-end, legitimate international business that the economy needs by demonstrating its ability to swiftly resolve complex commercial disputes, while also reducing legal costs faced by local investors.
And, by contributing to the speedier resolution of criminal cases, Mr Moree said the judicial reforms will aid “peace, order, governance and stability” in Bahamian society by taking wrong-doers off the streets more quickly.
He conceded, though, that the ambitious reform initiative was “not innovative” when compared to other countries’ judicial systems and will, in effect, simply enable The Bahamas to catch up with the rest of the world.
Mr Moree also disclosed that he had been “encouraged” by discussions with the Government on funding and other issues related to the construction of a new “customized”, purpose built Supreme Court complex.
This facility, he added, would consolidate all courts, the registry and other services into one property and end the inefficiency created by having to move court files between the Supreme Court’s current four to five buildings.
“We are contemplating a major, substantial programme of reform throughout the judiciary,” Mr Moree told Tribune Business. “We have a system that is in great need of reform and modernising, and we think that if we succeed it will bring great benefits to Bahamian society and The Bahamas as a jurisdiction.”
“First and foremost we have to establish a modern technology platform which will be implemented throughout the entire judiciary. It is simply impossible to continue to manage the courts in the absence of a sophisticated, modern technology platform which will allow us to launch e-services in the discharge of the duties and functions of the court.”
Explaining how such a “platform” will act as the foundation to revolutionise all Magistrate and Supreme Court processes, Mr Moree added: “For example, we have to introduce e-filing of court documents.
“At the moment, the entire system for filing court documents in the Magistrate’s Court and Supreme Court is manual, and it’s a laborious and outdated system. We hope to introduce an e-filing system where all court documents can be filed electronically via a laptop, and make electronic payments of case filing fees.
“We also hope to introduce an electronic case management system,” he continued. “That will be enormously helpful in managing cases through our system, tracking the progress of a case throughout its life. It will provide a powerful management tool to more effectively manage the resources of the court.”
Mr Moree said the e-services roll-out will also extend to electronic scheduling of court dates, with attorneys able to apply for hearing dates electronically and receive confirmations via the same route.
“There are other e-services that will come into effect once we have a modernised, effective technology platform in place to manage the courts,” he added. “This is enormous. This will reconstitute the entire system for Registries in our courts.
“Registries are the back offices of the court, where all the paperwork moves. We have a large civil registry that is desperately in need of modernization. All of the registries need to be modernized and we need to move to computerized services throughout our registries.”
The reforms outlined by the newly-appointed Chief Justice have been spoken about for years, and Mr Moree conceded that there was likely to be scepticism from some as to whether the initiative was for real and will be seen through to implementation.
“It’s going to have to happen incrementally,” he told Tribune Business. “We have to look at the launch and roll-out of these services over two to three years.
“It’s not innovative. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s simply catching up to where the rest of the world is. We are capable of it and will do it.”
Describing the co-operation and buy-in of The Bahamas Bar Association and other stakeholders as vital, Mr Moree said ongoing training for users of the technology platform – and a team of IT professionals dedicated to its maintenance, upkeep and repair – were also critical for the project to take root.
“It has to be done in a way that is sustainable; not done for one, two, three years and the whole thing then falls apart,” he explained. “Hopefully we will have a project that takes us into the future. I know this is an ambitious plan.
“We’ve started the work. Trust me, if you speak to people around here, I’m only seven to eight weeks into this but there were some ongoing projects commenced before I was put here and we’re looking at those, utilizing the hard work and adapting them to meet the objectives laid out.”
Mr Moree said site visits to other countries to assess how they administer their court systems are already being held, with a delegation set to visit the eastern Caribbean and St Lucia courts this week. Besides hiring outside consultants, the judicial system is also working closely with the Information Technology unit in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Chief Justice added that the Supreme Court’s physical location also needed to be addressed if the modernization push is to succeed, given that its courts, registries and other services are presently located in separate buildings stretching from George Street to just north of Bank Lane.
“If we’re going to successfully complete the project it’s imperative that as part of this reform programme we have a customized Supreme Court building that brings together all the courts, registries and services together in a specially designed complex,” Mr Moree said.
“All I can say on the record at this point is that I know this has been talked about many times before. I understand there might be a certain scepticism about this, but I’ve been very encouraged by the discussions I’ve had with the appropriate persons in the political directorate who are involved with funding this project.
“I hope to say more about this in the next few months. It’s at a very delicate stage at the moment, but we’re all agreed that this is an important subject.
Mr Moree was unable to provide a total cost for either the overall project or its components, although some funding is already in place, but he argued that any price paled in comparison to the benefits it will deliver if executed properly.
“I can’t say at the moment there’s an overall figure,” he told Tribune Business. “What I can say is this. I should be self-evident to all of us in The Bahamas that the rule of law and the overall administration of justice is critically connected to our economy and the social development of our people.
“And, as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, to the overall peace, order, governance and stability of our society. We have to connect the dots and understand one issue impacts another. In the overall scheme of society, you cannot put a price tag on the overall importance to civil society from an efficient, independent, impartial and modern criminal justice system and administration of justice. It touches the life of all of us in many different ways.”
Voicing optimism that the other two branches of government, the executive and Parliament, will “buy into” the judicial reform drive, Mr Moree said the initiative was not intended to be critical of what had gone before.
“The main benefits will be a more efficient and less costly court system for the resolution of all non-criminal disputes,” he told Tribune Business. “It will benefit the overall economy because it’s important to demonstrate to these companies and businesses looking to do business in The Bahamas that there is an impartial, high quality judiciary that allows them to resolve disputes in a timely manner.”
Mr Moree said dispute resolution is “an integral part of conducting business”, with increased commerce tending to lead to an increased volume of commercial court cases. “It’s a major part of being able to attract international business,” he added.
“To be competitive with other jurisdictions and attract the type of business we want, we have to have a very efficient and sophisticated court system to deal with disputes that arise. That also has an impact on Bahamians who conduct business.
“There are a large number of Bahamian businessmen, members of society, who have disputes. If we can more expeditiously resolve disputes and contain the costs related to that it’s a direct benefit to society,” Mr Moree continued.
“I would suspect any significant improvement in the court system will bring tangible and direct benefits to the entire Bahamian population, and also international business and persons conducting business with this jurisdiction.”
The Chief Justice said it will also aid the crime fight, and help “preserve the rule of law that’s essential to our democracy”, via the quicker resolution of criminal cases.