Explained: The Commission’s plans to digitalise the judiciary

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the need for digitalization of justice to the forefront, says Salla Saastamoinen.

Salla Saastamoinen is acting director-general for the Commission's DG for Justice and Consumers. [EU Regions Week [Flikr]

This article is part of our special report Legal certainty in the digital world: Lessons for Europe.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the need for digitalisation of justice to the forefront, says Salla Saastamoinen, stressing that “concerted effort is urgently needed, both at the national and EU level, to accelerate the digital transformation process of the justice sector”.

Salla Saastamoinen is the acting director-general for the Commission’s DG for Justice and Consumers. EURACTIV caught up with her to hear about the EU executive’s plans for fostering digitalization in the justice sector.

The European Commission has recently adopted a new package of initiatives to modernise the EU justice systems, with particular attention on digitalisation. How will this package help the crime-fighting and judicial process? In what ways can it be of benefit to justice professionals and those working in the sector?     

We have set out our strategic vision on how to make progress with regard to the digitalisation of justice in the “Communication on digitalisation of justice in the European Union”. This vision includes both the national and the EU level, and is in full respect of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. We propose a toolbox of different measures, which aim to improve access to justice and the effectiveness of justice systems through better use of digital technologies.

As for crime-fighting, firstly, the Commission’s Communication proposes an update of the Eurojust Case Management System (CMS) to allow its proper functioning and ensure it addresses the needs of its users. In addition, the Commission will establish a Task Force to improve the possibilities for data exchange by “hit/no-hit” checks between Eurojust and its partners, to help in identifying links between ongoing investigations and prosecutions.

Secondly, the Commission announced legislative initiatives on digital information exchange on cross-border terrorism cases and on the establishment of a Joint Investigation Teams Collaboration Platform.

Finally, the Commission announced a legislative initiative on the digitalisation of cross-border justice in civil and criminal justice. Such an initiative would make the digital channel the default in judicial cooperation between competent authorities in EU cross-border cases, including in criminal matters. It would also introduce an obligation on member states to provide an option for citizens, legal practitioners and businesses (including SMEs) to communicate with justice systems by digitally in EU cross-border cases. Member states would still be allowed to maintain paper channels of communication, as we are conscious of the risks of social exclusion.

These measures will considerably increase the efficiency and effectiveness of judicial cooperation across borders. Making digital the default option in cross-border judicial cooperation will give all actors in the EU security chain the opportunity to keep up with the fast pace of technological development and the rapidly evolving threat landscape.

In what ways has the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the importance of rapid digitalisation in the justice sector?

While the digitalisation of justice has been considered as important for many years, it is indeed correct that the COVID-19 crisis brought the need for digitalisation of justice to the forefront. In broader terms, the pandemic has led to a greater use of digital tools by the public, and by the public authorities. The crisis has also considerably impacted the functioning of member states’ justice systems and adversely affected EU cross-border judicial cooperation. This has lead in many cases to substantial obstacles to access to justice for citizens, legal practitioners and business.

Justice needs to keep pace with societal developments, including the ever-present process of digital transformation in accordance with our political priorities. Significant work has yet to be done, especially to fully grasp the benefits of digital technologies in judicial proceedings, including with regard to cross-border judicial cooperation.

Therefore, we consider in the Commission that concerted effort is urgently needed – both at the national and EU level – to accelerate the digital transformation process of the justice sector.

Last week’s initiative also seeks to foster the digitalisation of databases used by judiciary services, highlighting that databases are easy to consult, they minimise costs for users and are resilient to crises. What are the potential risks in terms of the digitalisation of registers for security and trust, for example? How can these risks be mitigated? 

Digitalisation of public and restricted access databases can certainly contribute to greater transparency, ease of access and foster trust in the internal market. At the same time, it implies greater cybersecurity risks. We have witnessed such a trend during the COVID pandemic. Criminals have adapted their modi operandi, and we have observed an increase in cybercrime activities. For example, recently, malicious actors have targeted the COVID vaccine supply chain and allegedly state-sponsored actors breached a major cybersecurity firm.

The implications of course are clear – digitalisation of databases and registers needs to go hand in hand with the need for appropriate cybersecurity risk and threat assessment and the diligent implementation of practical preventive and reactive measures.

This need is not limited to the digitalisation of databases, however. Cybersecurity is a horizontal challenge in the digital transformation process. As mooted in the Communication, the upcoming EU cybersecurity strategy will provide a cross-cutting framework, accompanied by legislative proposals to further enhance the security of network and information systems.

Cybersecurity is one area where national justice systems need to adapt. That is why, in the new EU Strategy on European judicial training, we have identified the need for new training offers, including on cybersecurity.

The Commission also published its ‘mapping exercise’ along with the new initiatives last week. What does this mapping exercise tell us about the disparities across member states in terms of the digitalisation of justice? What are the risks to a lack of harmony in this regard, for example to cross-border cases? 

We are strongly committed to base its policies on concrete fact-findings. Therefore, the Communication on the digitalisation of justice was drafted based on the mapping of the situation in all member states.

The digitalisation mapping leads to the conclusion that in a number of Member States progress is evident, but that is not the universal case.  There are still many areas that could significantly benefit from digitalisation. We will continue to regularly monitor the evolution of the digitalisation of justice systems in the member states. This will be done through the Justice Scoreboard.

The state of advancement at national level also correlates with member states’ readiness to employ digital means of communication in the context of EU judicial cooperation. The Communication explores how the Commission can best support member states in both respects.

Could you tell us a bit more about how the EU Strategy on Judicial Training takes into account the new challenges for justice professionals in terms of their reskilling and upskilling in fields such as digitalisation and artificial intelligence, for example. Why is this new training necessary? 

EU law only serves citizens if properly implemented. Training of justice professionals on EU law is essential to ensure that this law applied correctly and coherently across the EU. We aim to improve mutual trust and to foster a common judicial European culture, including on the rule of law.

The EU is facing a number of new developments and challenges that need to be addressed by judicial training. I would mention for example a deterioration of the rule of law and attacks on fundamental rights in some member states, the exponential digitalisation of our societies and the prospects of EU membership for the Western Balkans. Moreover, the level of participation in training must be elevated and balanced as it still differs considerably across member states and among justice professions. More professions must be addressed with training of even higher quality. I consider that European judicial training will, thanks to the new strategy, go beyond legal education and support the development of professional skills.

The respond the challenges that I mentioned, judicial training should promote a common rule of law culture, upholding fundamental rights and upscaling the digitalisation of justice. It should help professionals to keep pace with developing EU law. This applies to the key EU instruments for cross-border judicial cooperation and the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). Further, combating terrorism, organised crime, cybercrime, preventing and countering radicalisation leading to violent extremism and fighting money laundering remain key training topics. Training should assist in protecting the rights of victims, including of gender-based violence, the rights of children and of people with disabilities. Training is also needed in particular on consumer rights, single market rules, EU company law, EU competition law and EU environmental legislation. There are indeed a lot of areas benefiting from the judicial training!

In fields such as digitalisation and artificial intelligence it is the training that should raise the awareness of justice practitioners of the impact that digital tools and technologies have on handled cases. With training, professionals will be ready to use such tools properly in daily practice, including the new EU digital tools, such as computerised system for communication in cross-border civil and criminal proceedings (e-CODEX) and e-Evidence Digital Exchange System (e-EDES), which simplify cross border cooperation. Professionals need to secure adequate protection of individuals’ rights and personal data in the digital space, in particular so that parties can access files and attend court hearings. Training methodology should make better use of new technologies.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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