Let the digital quest for justice for all leave no one behind
The rallying cry of “justice for all” is synonymous with human rights and civil movements throughout history, and even a 1988 album title for heavy metal band Metallica. The push for universal justice is just as important online, especially as so much of our legal work occurs digitally. We’re currently witnessing the pros and cons of this digital revolution firsthand.
Environmental NGOs have long demanded easy access to information, opportunities to participate or access to justice. This may include easily accessible online data, online participatory options (e.g. submitting comments in Environmental Impact Assessment procedures via email) or even electronic access to courts. At the same time, many affected communities have not raised such concerns but wanted to stick to other participatory options such as personal meetings with competent authorities, public hearings, paper based letters sent to decision-makers or petitions submitted in order to influence policy-makers in problematic environmental issues.
We know from history that one cannot halt progress. However, history has shown us that progression must be overseen so as not to leave others behind. The introduction of e-communication into judicial procedures is one of the areas where those who cannot keep pace with development may be negatively impacted. In Hungary for example, a 2015 Act of Parliament made it mandatory to apply to electronic communication in certain court case types, and from July 2016 in all new court cases initiated by clients represented by attorneys.
You may assume that with the system now in place in Hungary everything is going quite well. However, lawyers were quickly obliged to open a new “Trial Gate” communication platform – next to their pre-existing platform for handling their own personal cases called “Client Gate” – for communicating with courts. Eventually, this system proved to be obsolete so from 1 January 2018 the same attorneys had to open a third platform, this time called “Corporate Gate”. In parallel, and adding to the confusion, a new system for communicating with competent authorities or courts was set up, as well as another one for electronic submissions. As a result, today, the system works only if you know the intricate details of it. If that was not enough, from 1 January 2018 three new procedural codes entered into force in Hungary: on Administrative Procedure, Administrative Judicial Procedure and Civil Procedure (the Criminal Procedure is to come in the summer.
So what has the combination of e-Justice and new procedural codes brought to Hungary? A number of co-existing e-communication platforms and a sense of stress not known before because one wrong click in the system is enough to mean your case is lost before it even began.
In its case against Spain regarding Uniland Cementera (No. ACCC/C/2014/99), the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee said that “informing the public about the decision taken exclusively by means of internet does not meet the requirements of the Convention”. These words are still valid and have a broader importance.
When introducing new forms of access, pay attention to their gradual uptake, and leave enough time for adaptation in order not to leave those who are supposed to benefit from the system behind. Do support progress but apply it with care.
The story was first published in Access to Justice for a Greener Europe Newsletter, May 2018.
Aarhus Convention topic on Justice and Environment website.