Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today about a highly topical issue.
How can we benefit from modern technologies to make our justice systems more efficient and resilient while preserving our high level of fundamental rights?
The topic of digitalisation of justice, and how we can make it work for citizens, has been on our common agenda for a number of years.
But the challenges that our justice systems are now experiencing during the pandemic have put the issue back in focus.
The crisis has made it clear that having digital channels for communication and access to justice can make a fundamental difference by ensuring seamless procedures despite the social distancing measures.
But the benefits of digital justice are not exclusive to the pandemic situation.
By digitalising our judicial systems we are also taking a big step towards facilitating access to justice.
We should take the needs of citizens as our yardstick.
For instance, it is fair for our citizens to ask today why they can easily bank online, but in many cases still cannot consult their electronic court file, request a certificate or receive documents from courts electronically.
Digitalisation reduces delays and costs thus improving the efficiency and quality of our court systems.
Digitalisation creates “around the clock” access to Courts and competent authorities.
By making certain documents available online, justice systems will become more transparent, helping citizens and businesses to understand their rights and contributing to consistency in case law.
Thus digitalisation is no longer a “nice to have”, but constitutes a critical imperative.
But we have to be mindful that we are not compromising on our well-established safeguards.
Allow me a quick look back, before we look forward.
In the European institutions, we began our journey towards e-Justice more than a decade ago.
I am happy to say that the CCBE has been our skilful, loyal and helpful companion along the way ever since.
The Commission, the Member States and the major organisations of legal practitioners have cooperated very well during that time to make great strides towards establishing several real interoperable digital solutions.
To name a few:
- the European e-Justice Portal, with its wealth of information and steadily growing interactive tools;
- the “Find a lawyer” search engine we built together with many of the bar associations and law societies;
- ECLI - the European case law identifier; and
- the e-CODEX system – our tool that stands for both secure and interoperable cross-border data exchange.
Any plans for the future should be based on a clear understanding of the current state-of-play.
For years, the Commission has been looking into the effectiveness of national justice systems through the European Semester and the EU Justice Scoreboard.
Digitalisation falls under the category of the quality of the justice systems.
In the 2020 European Semester, eight Member States received a country specific recommendation relating to their justice systems.
In that context, the Commission proposed that some Member States improve the efficiency and quality of their justice systems, including digitalisation.
Furthermore, the Commission services have conducted this year an in-depth mapping exercise of the degree of digitalisation of the different justice areas in the Member States.
It includes data collected over the summer from a number of stakeholders, and again, I would like to thank you for your swift contributions in this endeavour.
The aim is to present and discuss the results of the mapping exercise at the Justice Council in December.
Let me give you some examples where I see a need to change the gear.
First we must not forget that digital means are not available in all Member States and for all judicial procedures.
It is clearly the right time to work together to make the digital channel a viable way of providing seamless access to justice across Europe and moving forward with concrete actions - at national and at EU level.
We will look into the details how this can be achieved including by legal and technical means.
I can assure you that we are mindful that new systems and digital judicial tools will have to be designed in full respect of the independence of the users – be it Courts or lawyers.
Digitalisation of justice at the level of the Union is very closely linked to progress at national level.
Therefore, while I am conscious of the principle of subsidiarity, I am strongly encouraging Member States to have an ambitious approach towards the digitalisation of their national justice systems.
Some of the EU cohesion policy programmes under the new Multiannual Financial Framework can help with these efforts.
The Recovery and Resilience Facility under Next Generation EU also puts a strong focus on digitalisation.
In fact, very recently the European Council endorsed the Commission’s proposal to earmark at least 20% of this instrument’s budget for actions specific to digitalisation.
Therefore, I hope that Member States will identify digitalisation of justice as a priority in their national recovery plans.
We also need a major shift in culture and often this depends on political will.
We should also remain conscious of the fact that digitalising our justice systems needs due considerations.
Disadvantaged court users may lack the means or skills to access a fully digital justice system.
Special arrangements need to be put in place for such users.
We must make sure that no one is left behind!
Authorities must guarantee the right to a fair trial.
Particular attention is necessary in digitalised criminal proceedings to avoid any interference with the rights of the defence, including private communication between the client and lawyer, and the right to access material evidence heard by the court.
At the same time, court staff and legal practitioners could benefit from more digital skills and more judicial training.
Digital technologies offer major potential to improve access to justice.
Looking into the future requires an in-depth reflection on Artificial Intelligence. AI is no longer a topic for researchers or foresight specialists. It is already part of our today´s reality.
We need to get it right.
AI is certainly a very promising tool for robust search facilities that allow better access to case law for legal professionals and the general public.
Making judicial decisions machine-readable permits the use of algorithms, in line with the European data strategy and the Commission’s policy on Artificial Intelligence.
Seamless access and easy re-use of case law support the work of practitioners. They can become more efficient and reach clients who could not otherwise afford their services.
Legal practitioners can also better play their ‘gatekeeper’ role when, using algorithm-based solutions, they can advise clients not to bring ill-founded cases to the courts.
At the same time, legal practitioners need adequate expertise to critically evaluate the output of algorithmic tools they may use.
They must receive adequate training allowing them to reasonably understand the capacities and the limits of the application.
And we need to bring the benefits of Artificial Intelligence into perspective with their risks.
The use of Artificial Intelligence applications must not prevent public bodies from giving explanations for their decisions.
And the AI applications must be auditable by the competent bodies.
While AI can be very helpful, only judges should deliver final judgments.
Moving to more digital means brings opportunities and risks. In particular, it is a prerequisite that on-line cross-border channels can be trusted.
They need to be as safe as they can be!
In this context the e‑CODEX system is a reliable tool we can build on as an important component necessary for the interoperable and secure exchange of information and data in a cross-border context.
In a way, it is the technical backbone allowing legislation to become a reality, and I expect to see its increased use, for example in the context of the two recently revised Regulations on Service of Documents and Taking of Evidence in civil or commercial matters.
The CCBE has been actively involved in the development of e‑CODEX.
Therefore, I am happy to inform you that the Commission intends to adopt a legislative proposal on the future of e‑CODEX in December this year.
Just a few days ago the Council adopted Conclusions on “Access to Justice: Seizing the opportunities of digitalisation”.
The Commission aims to follow up on these Conclusions with a Communication on the digitalisation of justice in the EU still this year.
I look forward to a rich future cooperation with the CCBE, and with all of you, on defining a common way towards digitalising justice in the EU.
I believe that we need to move forward in a more structured way and with new vigour.
I wish you a fruitful meeting, and my heartfelt congratulations on the occasion of the CCBE’s 60th anniversary.