"JUSTICE delayed is justice denied”. William Ewart Gladstone was right: we the citizen should expect justice to be delivered in a manner which ensures equal access to the law and that ensures that inefficiencies in our system of justice will not, in the words of the former Chief Justice of the United States WE Burger, “drain even a just judgment of its value”, no matter how small the case or delay.

Our justice system, like most across Europe, finds its roots in feudalism and with the passage of time and change carries historical and cultural norms that define its place as a pillar of our nationhood and society. Yet can you imagine a European country in which the legal system was born in 1920? There is no need to imagine –that country is Estonia. It is a judicial history and development cut short in 1940 by the Presidium of the Provisional Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR and only re-established by the Republic of Estonia Courts Act and Status of Judges Act in October 1991. As an equal member of the European Union, the courts are also the courts of the European Union and the judges are judges of Estonian and European Law.

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Compared with some of its neighbours, the justice system of Estonia is a mere bairn, yet has grasped an essential element of justice – that efficiencies reduce bureaucracy, ensuring information can be shared almost instantaneously across the criminal justice system, through the prosecution, police, defence, probation, legal aid, the courts and prison service, all enabled by e-File. No wonder Estonia has the second-fastest court proceedings in Europe.

E-File, born in 2005, allows for an effective delivery of elements of Estonian courts and differing phases of procedures. However, one major caveat for us to consider is a difference in our justice systems – we use juries and trial by peers, Estonia does not.

Even so, so much can be achieved by reflecting on the experience of Estonia and possible outcomes which are already being discussed and developed in our court system. Estonia itself may wish to reflect on the principles that trial by our peers plays a major part in legitimising the justice system by connecting the scales of justice to the lives of every citizen in a democratic state.

Scotland already has a range of national policy documents that can assist us on our journey to full digitisation, and if we use the 2010 Scottish Civil Courts Review, we can set outcomes to measure the effectiveness of our digital journey as follows:

-Digitisation must enhance fairness in procedures and working practices.

-Digitisation must enhance secure judgments in the outcome of disputes.

-Digitisation must ensure that justice is accessible to all and sensitive of the needs of those who use it.

-Digitisation must enhance early resolution of disputes and deal with cases as quickly and with as much economy as is consistent with justice.

-Digitisation must enable more effective and efficient use of its resources, allocating them to cases proportionally to the importance and value of the issues at stake.

-Digitisation must have regard to the effective and efficient application of the resources of others across the justice system.

The courts have sought to build on the review and are moving ahead with a programme of digitisation via the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service Digital Strategy 2018-2023, in which there are a range of forward-thinking and important action points and statements. The challenge for our courts is not to reinvent the wheel and recognise that much can be learned from other justice systems across Europe, notably Estonia. Reflecting on their experience, it will not only enhance our courts’ digital journey, it will give practical and also radical examples of efficiencies and relationships required to limit barriers to digitisation, notably bureaucracy and fear of change.

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Our justice system has nothing to fear from digitisation. It already has, like NHS Scotland a bedrock of information systems, notably COPII, the Criminal Operation digital management system, which facilitates much of the work we see done by the Estonian e-File, though it must be noted that in Estonia they’re not just moving to virtual court sessions due to Covid-19, this has been their reality for some time. While Scotland is enhancing the options for virtual proceedings to firstly safeguard vulnerable witnesses and now due to Covid-19, by reflecting on Estonian experience our courts can easily emulate a system that where a guilty plea has been entered that a case can be fully digitised. This may challenge notions of how the courts work, but it is an effective way in which small civil cases with a guilty plea can be dealt with efficiently and reduce the time of full court sittings.

It’s clear in the age of Covid that digitisation can allow for the continuation of our justice system and now, out of necessity, we must push forward and reach, as the courts have stated in the their digital strategy, for a “new model for summary criminal justice”. By reflecting on the Estonian system, the courts’ belief and ability to deliver, a “radical shift from the existing system” as stated in the digital strategy will only be enhanced and ensure that barriers such as entrenched silos of bureaucracy are exposed as the real threats to our justice system.

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Learning from Estonia, Scotland has and must show its strength as a legal digital innovator, highlighting the benefits of trial by our peers and show that digitisation is no threat to that core principle of our justice system.

I am mindful of the words of the late Rt Hon Lord Cooper of Culross, the former Lord Justice-General and Lord President of the Court of Session, when considering our legal system and its impact it has on our lives, that “… these are the matters which inevitably touch the lives of all citizens at many points from the cradle to the grave and their regulation (of our legal system) is a function of government with which no civilised community can dispense and on the due administration of which the well-being of every society depends”.

Our radical proposal number two: ensure that our society can dispense and administer our laws in the digital age to ensure that justice is neither delayed nor denied.