Ethiopia has been implementing justice reform programs for more than 15 years now. This program is comprehensive and includes all the justice institutions at the federal and regional levels. Within each institution, the reform program incorporates various components.
ICT is used as an important tool to achieve many of the objectives set in the justice reform program. Thus ICT is not seen as an end by itself but as a means to achieve other justice ends. The ICT system was locally designed, implemented and expanded within this mindset. The current system used by the courts is quite advanced but it reached this stage by responding to growing justice needs some of which were created by the new ICT system itself.
1. Results achieved through ICT
The ICT system implemented in Ethiopia has shown tangible and significant results in a number of areas in the judicial process. The system was instrumental in identifying the problems as well as in minimizing some of them and/or eliminating others all together. The following sections will outline some of the achievements in this respect.
2. Backlog reduction and management
Before the implementation of the ICT system in Ethiopia, everyone felt that cases were dragged for a long period of time, but no one knew the magnitude of the problem for sure as there was no system that provides information about the cases in the courts. The exact number of pending cases was more or less a guess and so was the duration time of cases, and the number of adjournments. Neither the court management, nor the benches had overall report of cases upon which informed decisions could be made to manage them. The extent of backlog was thus very difficult to measure and know and much less to solve.
The implementation of the Case Management System resolved this mystery by providing detailed information about each case and aggregate report about cases in the courts. The system, among other things, classifies cases based on the year of filing thereby enabling the court managers and the judges alike to see the age distribution of pending cases. The first few reports generated by the system revealed, to the surprise of everyone that a big percentage of the pending cases have been in the system for a number of years. The system showed the backlog in the courts was much bigger than anyone ever imagined. Shocking as the information was at the beginning, it also was empowering for the court management as it helped them know the magnitude of the problem and the nature of the cases that needed attention in the benches. Although judges had information about individual cases on the files they got, the aggregate information about their respective benches was only known after the implementation of the new system. The ICT generated reports were powerful enough to convince the court management and the judges that the users of court indeed had good reasons to complain about the judicial process.
Please Note that the Ethiopian calendar is 8 years and 7 months behind the European Calendar. Thus, the data for 2009 is for the year 2017 in Gregorian calendar. The Ethiopian year begins on the 11th of September and ends on the 10th of September the next year.
The availability of organized information about the age distribution paved the way for an agreement between the judges and the court management on the definition of backlog, the need to solve the problem and on policies to address them. As a result, backlog reduction programs were developed and implemented throughout the court system. The ICT package was instrumental in monitoring the implementation of the backlog reduction programs. The Federal Courts in Ethiopia are now by and large backlog free thanks to the development and implementation of the Court Case Management System. One of the most serious judicial ailments in Africa and throughout the world, was cured in Ethiopia though ICT. Currently, it helps the court managers and the benches to measure the backlog increments and to look for solutions to address them. It is designed to give an alert to the court managers and the benches when there is an increase in backlog. When we look back to those old days, we sometimes tell ourselves that we have been leading the court in the dark.
3. Frequency of adjournments
Duration time measures the time span between the opening and disposition of a file. This is an important element in understanding how cases unfold in the judicial process but it does not tell much unless it is supported by another element that measures the frequency of adjournments. Delay is bad enough, but it gets even worse if parties to a case have to come back and forth more frequently within a specified time period. Increment in frequency of adjournments raises the cost of litigation, adversely affects judicial efficiency (more judicial time spent on a case), affects other aspects of access to justice, particularly in big countries like Ethiopia where the litigants have to travel a long distance to come to the court site.
The ICT system in Ethiopia thus was designed to measure not only the duration time but also the number of adjournments given by the court during the process. As a result the system provides detailed information about the number of adjournments in every case as well as aggregate information about all cases based on predetermined search options (such as subject matter, nature of parties, level of court, year of filing). This information was used to develop a differentiated case flow management system within each court, which includes fixing the maximum number of tolerable adjournments. The implementation of such system in turn also depends on the ICT. This has proved to be an important tool to ensure efficiency and accountability within the judicial process. Incidentally the information regarding adjournments is available to the judges, to the court administrators and to litigants and to the public at large.
4. Unnecessary delay
Delay is one of the most serious barriers of access to justice and any ICT system that does not take delay reduction as one of its central objectives would not be of much help to court users and service providers. This requires a detailed analysis and agreement on what delay means and its fundamental causes as well as various contributors. In Ethiopia, the ICT system contributed towards the reduction of delay through the following interconnected items.
4.1 Automated record keeping
One of the major causes of delay in the judicial process was misplacement of records and unavailability of court files when needed. This was partly a result of the archaic court record system that was used for illicit purposes by court staff and as a tool for dilatory tactics by some litigants. In addition to its effect on other aspects of the judicial process (such as fairness, effectiveness and accountability) the old record keeping system made timely disposition of cases difficult even when such is desired and possible.
The new record system avoided this by introducing a new color-coded record keeping system supported by ICT. Through this system, every movement of files was registered and thus tracked in the system enabling the court registry to identify the staff involved in the process. This reduced the temptation to hide files, as it was easy to identity the person who would be held accountable for the act.
4.2 Recording and transcribing
Another reason for delay in the Ethiopian context, and perhaps also in other countries, was the long hand writing of witness testimony by judges. This was burdensome for the judges, but, more importantly, it also took too much of their precious time which could have been used to undertake other more important judicial activities, thereby contributing to delay. To avoid this problem a system of recording and transcribing was put in place. The judges would take notes during the presentation of oral testimony, but it would otherwise be audio recorded by the registry staff and then transcribed as needed. The hard copies of the transcribed document would be part of the record but the soft copies of the same document would also be uploaded to the system to ease reference to the testimony by the judges. Introduction of this system allowed judges to hear more cases in a given time and also created the opportunity to provide a complete and more reliable record of the testimony, which was not possible when judges write the testimony by hand. The downside of this system was its tendency to shift the delay from the judicial side to the administrative side when the registry staff is unable to transcribe the record in time.
Digitization of court record was a relatively recent addition to the ICT system in Ethiopia. It was introduced as part of a bigger plan towards creating a paperless judicial process, at least in some of the courts. As a matter of a judicial record keeping system, there is only one court file for each case in the registry in Ethiopian courts. Not only did this make misplacement and hiding easier, but it also meant that when there are more than one judges in a panel, they could only read the documents in turn or depend on the briefing by the other judges. Besides, the judges had to carry the bulky court documents around, including to their homes, which endangered the security of the documents in addition to the inconvenience caused to the judges.
To minimize the delay that resulted from the transfer of files among the judges before and during deliberation, the digitization of court documents and uploading them in the system was introduced. In the first place this system avoided the incentive to tamper with court records by the court registry. Secondly, it made the court documents available for all judges concerned on line or in storage devices at the same time. The system was later expanded to give access to the digitized court record to the litigants during the court sessions and at other times. Judgments were also made available to the general public following the same system. The introduction of this system was instrumental in reducing duration time and thereby reducing delays in the Ethiopian courts.
4.4 Video Conferencing
Personal appearance of parties was necessary to undertake judicial business in Ethiopia. In a country as big as Ethiopia this imposed an insurmountable burden on the parties in terms of cost, time, inconvenience and discomfort. For vulnerable groups such as women this skewed the balance in favor of the other litigants. It was also a cause of delay when witnesses called by the parties or by the court had to travel a long distance to attend the court sessions. Non appearance of the parties or the witnesses sometimes required further adjournment of the dates of hearing adding up to an already long process.
The court took an initiative to introduce the Video Conferencing System to tackle this problem. It installed plasma TVs with cameras in many parts of the country and had them connected to the courtrooms in Addis Ababa enabling real time communication between the parties/witnesses and the judges unhampered by the physical distance. The court also made use of plasma TVs installed by the other arms of government for other purposes. In terms of reducing delay, this ensured greater credibility of adjournments and reduction in duration time.
- Measuring duration time
The single most important tool availed by the ICT system in terms of delay reduction was the ability to measure performance of the judicial process by using predetermined parameters agreed upon by all stakeholders. The system provided inventory of pending cases in real time, it catalogued cases based on their age, measured ending inventory, clearance rates, backlog index, average number of adjournments, just to mention a few. The availability of these standardized measurement parameters and many others made life easier both for the judges and the court administrators. It was easy to follow individual case progress or overall pattern in real time. Not only did it become easy to locate problem areas but it was also possible to identify the causes of some of the bottlenecks. This enabled the courts system to respond quickly when complaints arise regarding delay.
5. Cost of litigation
Cost of litigation is one of the most serious barriers of access to justice in many legal systems. Cost of litigation is the sum total of all expenses including lawyers’ fees, court filing fees, transportation and lodging costs and other similar expenses incurred by the parties to vindicate rights or defend claims in a court of law. Some of the costs incurred can be minimized or totally avoided by streamlining ICT into the judicial process and Ethiopia is a good example for this. A simple example is the video conferencing facility, which makes transportation and logistical costs totally unnecessary as litigants make their oral presentations to the court from their place of abode. Reduction in the number of court appearances and overall reduction of the duration time and early delivery of judgment also means less time and money spent on litigation, particularly in Ethiopia where lawyers’ factor in time spent in court as an important element to determine their fees. The availability of case related information online through the court database, touch screen computers (made available in court compounds for the public) and the Interactive Voice Response System also avoided the role of go-betweens and the illegal request for payment by court staff to provide information.
6. Public trust
No court system can attain the optimum level of public trust by just introducing ICT into its judicial process. But ICT does contribute towards this end. Here are a few examples from the Ethiopian experience. One, ICT empowers citizens in general and litigants in particular by providing information about individual cases and overall court performance. Unlike in the past, litigants are not left in the dark about the status of their case and this somehow develops trust in users and eventually in the public in general. Second, the recording and transcribing system (both in video and audio formats) ensures that whatever the witness states is recorded. Thus unlike in the past, litigants’ concerns of missing aspects of their oral evidence, deliberate or otherwise, is not an issue any more. Third, the digitization process gives an assurance to the parties regarding the security of their files and any parts thereof. The overall effect of the ICT system in enhancing efficiency, transparency and accountability n the judicial process contributes a great deal in building trust in the process. This however, remains a small part of the endeavor towards trust. Unless the other aspects of the judicial process, which erode trust are not properly and simultaneously addressed the impact of ICT in this regard will be limited and short-lived.
7. Quality of services
The quality of judicial services is dependent on many variables but the quality of the input in the process is certainly one of the factors that affect the quality of outcomes in the judicial process. A court system that does not have proper record keeping system to keep the written, oral or other evidence adduced by the parties will certainly have hard time giving a quality judgment, understood as a correct judgment. In this respect the recording and the transcribing systems as well as the digitization of court record contributed, perhaps not so directly, to the quality of judicial outcomes. Besides, many studies indicate that delay reduces the utility of judgments and in some cases makes them worthless altogether thereby having an impact on their qualities. Delay also affects quality by affecting the availability of evidence. With time, evidence may be lost, destroyed; witness may forget, change place or even die. Inefficiency and quality of judicial outcomes are thus inversely related, at least up to a point. The ICT packages outlined above which were implemented in Ethiopia had therefore their own contributions in enhancing quality of outcomes. It should, however, be stressed that there are many more factors that have an impact on quality of judicial services and reform programs need to combine those initiatives in their ICT design.
Many of the judges in Ethiopia are young and inexperienced, especially in the lower courts. Their professional base thus leaves much to be desired although there are many efforts underway to fill the gap in this respect. The ICT initiative was used as one possible tool for intervention to alleviate the problems faced in this regard. The platform facilitated though the ICT system created an opportunity for judges to have a lot more information than would be available through the traditional means. Judgments of the Supreme Court were regularly uploaded, as were all the laws of the Federal Government. Various other written materials available in an electronic format were also made available to the judges. In a country where judicial libraries are not available and some judges are remotely located, this was a very effective way of addressing the competence issues of the judicial personnel through ICT. Furthermore, the ICT system helped in training judges in big numbers though the video conferencing facilities. It should be mentioned, however, that other training programs were also organized to enhance the professional competence of the judges and other support staff.
One of the most serious problems in the judicial business in Ethiopia was problem of storage and retrieval of information about individual cases or their aggregates. Records were manually kept when files are opened, adjourned and disposed but little information could be obtained from this raw data. Thus, there was no information about the nature of the cases that were pending, much less about the parties, the nature of the disputes and the amount of money involved in the disputes. Neither could the court managers nor the judges get organized information about business disputes as opposed to marriages or torts, for example. As stated earlier, there was no way the court could tell the average duration time of cases, pending or disposed. The situation of the litigants and the general public was much worse when it comes to getting judicial information. Whatever little information was available could be obtained often by greasing hands or by calling Mr X to contact Ms Y to do this and that. In general, the process was not transparent to the public, neither was it accountable.
The ICT system changed this system upside down. After its implementation, information is easily available to judges, to court administrators, to litigants and to the general public though different platforms. Judges and court administrators get information real-time through the wide area network whereas litigants and citizens get information about individual cases and overall report through the website, the touchscreens installed in many courts, the video conferencing and the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) which requires only a telephone connection.
The information which one can get from the system is rich and can be further refined through different search options. Among other things, the system provides information on the following items, just to mention a few.
- Information about disposed cases (number of cases disposed, average duration time, clearance rate, backlog index etc)
- Information about pending cases (number of pending cases, number of adjournments, distribution based on the year of filing, ageing of cases etc)
- Information about the nature of the parties (the litigation matrix which classifies them into five categories i.e., government, state owned public enterprises, private companies and individuals). The report generated from this shows who is suing whom in the judicial process. It also shows important information in favor of whom judgment were delivered.
- Information about the lawyers representing litigants
- Information about the amount of money involved in disputes (the amount claimed by the plaintiff is recorded and so is any counter claim. The system generates aggregates which are very good indicators of the relationship between economic performance and dispute resolution).
- Information based on the level of court (differentiates first instance, appeal and cassation cases). The system also has case index based on which any report can be generated based on one’s interest.
- Gender related information (this was added at a later stage to ensure gender sensitivity of the judicial process. When cases are filed some disputes are categorized as gender sensitive. This allows the judges and the court administrators to undertake differentiated case flow management of such cases.
Without exaggeration, any information in the courts is just a click away. Generally speaking, the ICT system has bridged the gap with regard to information.
- Demand and supply
In judicial parlance, demand can represent the total number of cases filed by court users and supply the services provided by the courts. Thus understood, the demand side of the judicial process will have a significant impact on the supply side (such as the number of judges, the budget, number of court rooms, clerks etc) as the supply side affects the demand side (an inefficient system discourages users from coming to court). The pattern of the demand curve also gives the courts information about the nature of the cases that are inundating the courts thereby enabling them to develop policies and strategies to timely respond to the demands. Court administrators measures to manipulate the supply side (such as tightening the procedural rules, or raising filing fees) of the process can achieve the intended results only if they have adequate data and information about the demand side. Availability of information is thus crucial to avoid the possibility of a mismatch of supply and demand in judicial services.
The availability of information about the number of cases filed (which is growing in geometric terms) demanding courts’ time and resources and the availability of information about the courts’ capacity to respond to these demands helped the Ethiopian court managers to develop policies for backlog reduction, to gradually narrow their definition of backlog, to develop credible adjournment policies and to fix the maximum number of tolerable adjournments in some cases. The ICT system is, thus, a reliable system to provide informed decision and wise court management and leadership. In a sense, it empowers the judicial leadership by providing them with information based on which they make their decisions.
10. Electronic Filing and its impact
The electronic filing system in Ethiopia was a result of the rising demand for access to justice, which was hampered by the geographic location of the federal courts in the capital city, Addis Ababa, at the center of the country. For many regional litigants who would like to have their appeals heard in the Federal Courts, this required a huge investment, which can easily go beyond the means available for an average Ethiopian. Electronic filing was thus born out of necessity. It was intended to serve those poor litigants who would otherwise not be in a position to reach the federal courts for lack of sufficient funds to cover the basic expenses. It was intended to address one of the barriers of access to justice, distance.
Introducing electronic fining was understandably more complicated than the ICT packages previously implemented. Once introduced in those piloted courts, however, litigants were very quick to make use of it and for good reasons. The system allowed the litigants to file cases in their respective regional courts which were particularly delegated and designated for this purpose. Thus they did not have to travel to Addis Ababa just to file their case in the federal court registry. They could file cases in remotely located kiosks controlled by the court. The agents of the court transmitted their memorandums of appeal as well as other necessary documents to the court registry in Addis Ababa electronically. This saved time and money to the litigants and enhanced the court’s efficiency and effectiveness by paving the way for the eventual aim of reaching a paperless court. Courts also become more accessible as a result.
11. Next Steps
The reform program in Ethiopia is an ongoing effort that is intended to overhaul the whole judicial system. The main areas of intervention for the judiciary are outlined in the Growth and Transformation Plan II (a continuation of GTPI), which is a five-year plan of the government including that of the justice sector.
The courts both at the federal and regional levels have specific plans to further streamline their use of ICT in judicial operations. As stated earlier the electronic filing was implemented on a pilot basis. As a result, its implementation was limited in terms of geographic expanse and court hierarchy. When it first started, it was implemented on a pilot basis in five big cities out of Addis Ababa, mainly in the capital cities of the regional governments. Its availability is thus, limited to some court sites although there is a growing demand for its implementation in many more places. As a result, one of the areas of interest and priority areas for the courts is to expand the electronic case filing to as many places in the regions as resources allow. Besides, the electronic filing was piloted at the Federal Supreme Court level in the cassation division (and the appellate division to some extent), which required little procedural transactions. The main documents handled through this process were the memorandums of appeal and defense. The other procedural transactions were simply written by the judges and then scanned and filed in the original record. Electronic case filing in the lower federal courts (the federal high court and the federal first instance courts) is yet to be implemented. Expansion and implementation of electronic case filing to the lower courts is part of the court’s plan for the current and coming few years.
The electronic case filing used in Ethiopia is part of a bigger system called Court Case Management System (CCMS). The system is used basically for the Federal Supreme Court. Once the electronic filing is conducted, the new file becomes part of the already developed database system. As the next procedural steps are basically oral, they are conducted though the video conferencing facilities. The whole process is more often concluded without the need for the parties to personally appear before the court. Once the judgment is delivered, it is sent to the parties. The electronic case filing system is thus integrated with the case management system of the court.
The Ethiopian experience, however modest, is a good example of how a poor country can use state of the art ICT packages to address some of the most challenging justice issues. There are a number of good lessons that can be picked from the Ethiopian experience. Some of them are highlighted below.
- Many of the problems faced in judicial processes can be handled through ICT packages. Many of the barriers of access to justice and the bottlenecks causing inefficiency in the judicial business can be addressed by streamlining ICT. ICT can be of great help in justice as it is in other sectors.
- Design and implementation is not a one-time activity, it is a continuous process through which the ICT tools are adjusted to the needs of the justice sector.
- The implementation of ICT requires customization to the needs of a particular country
- It also requires commitment and ownership by the leaders and managers of the courts. ICT is not something that has to be fully left to the technicians, although their role is irreplaceable. It should not fully depend on donor money either although that may be needed at the beginning.
- The aims of ICT packages can best be achieved through piloting phases. Pilots are judicial laboratories where solution are tested and further refined
- Design and implementation should involve all stakeholders and judicial staff to minimize resistance during implementation and to ensure continuity. Change management should also be an important package of the reform program in general and the ICT part in particular.
- Reform is about changing how people think; Training, Training, Training and Training is vital for sustainable implementation of ICT packages
Ethiopia has a population of more than 100 million, the second biggest in Africa, with annual population growth at 2.9% every year. Its economy is also showing remarkable growth over the last decade, now one of the fastest in Africa. The number of filings every year has tripled and is expected to grow even further. This growing demand for judicial services requires innovation on the part of judicial leadership lest the courts get inundated with fresh cases and get overwhelmed with a big backlog AGAIN. One of such innovative mechanisms is electronic case filing. The Ethiopian courts know about this and have some experience already. Their plan is to expand the system and implement it in the lower courts such as the federal first instance and federal high courts. Depending on the rate of success in the federal courts, the system can then be expanded to the other regional courts.