Storage and retrieval of Family Court documents will become less costly and faster, if Deputy Chief Justice John Faulks has his way. He said the cost of storing such documents is about $1 million a year. He and his chief information officer, Phil Hocking, last month committed to moving to a fully electronic filing system to replace paper based storage as soon as practicable.
If you were to stack every paper document held in the storage facilities of Australia’s Federal Circuit Court and Family Court they’d stand about 24 kilometres high. That’s 77 times the height of Sydney Tower and 80 times the height of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower.
Deputy Chief Justice John Faulks said the cost of storing such documents is about $1 million a year, which is why he and his chief information officer, Phil Hocking, last month committed to moving to a fully electronic filing system to replace paper-based storage “as soon as practicable”.
The courts are pursuing an electronic system not only because it makes sense but because documents stored — which go back as far as 1976, when the Family Court began — cost a fee to retrieve each time.
It can also take up to three days to access some documents stored across the country. Court staff hope a digital system will reduce retrieval times too.
“So at some point we will be saying there will be no more files going to archive because we are storing all that information electronically,” Mr Hocking told Fairfax Media.
While a fully digital court system — where judges, as well as litigants, read from digital documents on electronic devices during cases — is some time off, the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court have made much progress in recent years.
As of last month, over half a million family law-related documents were electronically filed using the Commonwealth Courts Portal, which, at July 1, had 150,000 registered users. But they are still printed off for judges and put into archives.
Both courts have also implemented internet-connected cameras, which allow for litigants to appear before a judge from their local registry or from home using their own web camera with a judge’s permission.
The camera system is used for about 250 hours a month, Mr Hocking said.
The portal also has a live chat feature, used by an average of 200 people a day.
Justice Faulks and another judge will also soon participate in a pilot where all documents submitted to their courtrooms will be displayed on their tablets, potentially making it easier for them to conduct cases.
“What that enables me to do of course is to word search all of the papers a lot more easily than having to go through them page by page,” Justice Faulks told Fairfax Media.
“It also enables all sorts of other things such as highlighting, annotating, bookmarking … which simplifies the task of both conducting the trial and doing the judgment afterwards.”
But while Justice Faulks was embracing the move to digital and the coming pilot, he said some other judges were reluctant.
“Some of my colleagues are less enthusiastic and want to stick with paper and pen,” he said. “I think it’s probably a generational thing. It will take some time for a fully digital system to take over.”
To increase the uptake of e-filing, the Family Court intends to mandate electronic filing of certain forms, such as consent order applications, in the second half of 2015. It receives about 12,000 of these a year but will still allow paper filing in exceptional circumstances.
A number of interactive forms have also been launched to prevent errors in documents by ensuring forms are submitted with all the necessary parts filled in and documentation attached.
“With a paper form it’s one dimensional; you complete it and then someone else has to type that information into the computer and there’s no feedback as you’re completing it, apart from the static information on that particular page,” Mr Hocking said.
“So what we’ve constructed are e-forms that have built-in validation checks which test the dates that you put in and test the postcodes … so you can validate each page to make sure you haven’t left any gaps.”
Mr Hocking said he hoped there would be significant uptake in electronic filing to prevent lost files, a need for archiving, or a need for trolleys full of papers coming into courtrooms in future.
Read More: Sydney Morning Herald
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