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Digital courts during Covid-19: Italy edition

Case Study: Q&A discussing the current situation of the judicial system with Valeria Logrillo, criminal law solicitor from Milan

The judicial system has grappled with a need to preserve its renowned and traditional way of working, whilst balancing the mounting pressure from society to keep up with changing attitudes and technological advances. 

COVID-19 has required the judicial system to be forward thinking in order to keep courts open. All this whilst maintaining restrictive measures that are needed to ensure the safety of everyone involved in the judicial process. 

With Italy being one of the hardest hit countries in Europe so far, the Italian court system was one of the first part of the country to implement distancing measures. It was later shut down, as the COVID-19 healthcare crisis escalated. 

In light of the current situation we spoke with Valeria Logrillo, a solicitor in Milan, to get valuable insight on the current situation. Valeria specialises in several aspects of criminal law – from corporate criminal offences and misconduct in public office, to bankruptcy and financial crime. She has shared her experience of accessing the courts in Italy during these difficult times. 

MANY COUNTRIES CURRENTLY AFFECTED BY THE COVID CRISIS HAVE HAD TO ADAPT AND DIGITISE THEIR COURTS TO ENSURE ACCESS TO JUSTICE. ITALY WAS ONE STEP AHEAD OF MANY COUNTRIES AS THE DIGITISATION OF THE COURTS STARTED BACK IN 2017. 

SINCE ITALY BEGAN ITS DIGITISATION JOURNEY, WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MAIN BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES?

When it comes to the digitisation of courts, it is necessary to make a distinction between the civil and administrative process and the criminal process.

The civil and administrative process had already been pressing ahead with digitising the courts, even before 2017. They had created dedicated platforms that allowed the filing of procedural documents. The criminal courts, however, had seen very limited progress in its digitisation – mostly limited to very particular and specific cases. As a criminal lawyer, my experience using the technology is more limited. 

For example, in Italy, videoconferencing in criminal courts has been in use for some time. It allows prisoners currently in jail as a result of organised crime and terrorism offences to participate. In other cases, it was used to enable people protected by special measures to participate in the debate, whilst ensuring their protection.

If we are looking at the digitisation of specific acts and platforms, Italy is still far behind. 

So far, the only form of actual digitisation is the ability to communicate and file specified documents with the court by authorised e-mail (PEC) in proceedings. However this is still limited only to certain documents as directed by the court. For example, the court can notify an act to a defendant, however the lawyer cannot submit a witness list to the court.

The digitisation of courts would mean keeping up with the changes which would simplify court activities that often take time and money and have a positive impact the environment, such as reducing paper use. However, the real challenge is to create a system that allows the courts to digitise while remaining compliant with the founding principles of the rule of law, such as the right to be heard, equality under the law and the oral tradition. 

DO YOU THINK THE CURRENT CRISIS MIGHT CHANGE THE WAY DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY IS PERCEIVED BY THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM IN THE FUTURE? 

This unprecedented period has certainly changed the we way work in several ways. 

Smart working and the process of digitisation has undisputedly changed the approach to work, with undeniable success, up to now. However, The administration of justice has not followed suit. It was not ready to face the challenge. Hearings have been postponed and the deadlines for filing processes suspended. This has created a feeling of paralysis, rather than innovation.

COULD REMOTE COURT SESSIONS HELP SPEED UP COURT CASES? 

The Italian justice system has a reputation for being excessively slow. This issue has been brought to the attention of European courts. These courts have convicted Italy on numerous occasions for delays. Steps need to be taken to speed up the system. The question is how this is going to be done. The methods envisaged in this emergency phase are not only unsuitable and, by their very nature, temporary but also dangerous for the justice system. The reforms are not coming from the institutions that should be introducing them.

To speed up the process and allow technological advancements to drive the digitisation process, it is necessary to reform the procedures and create measures that respect the constitutional principles of our system. This means not having to rely on the emergency legislation or, once the normality has returned, to permit a temporary measure to become a long-term solution.

This is not to say we should oppose digitisation, but rather that we should implement it in a careful way.

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