By Emma van Gelder, PhD-Candidate & prof. dr. Xandra Kramer (Erasmus University Rotterdam, ERC Project ‘Building EU Civil Justice, www.euciviljustice.eu)
A few weeks ago, alarming messages appeared in the Dutch media, stating that the digitisation of justice project in the Netherlands had failed, and that the project would be discontinued (see for instance the well-respected newspaper NRC). The official message, announced by the Dutch Council for the Judiciary (Council) in its letter of 10 April 2018 addressed to the Dutch Minister of Legal Protection, Sander Dekker, was that the Dutch Quality and Innovation of Justice initiative (QAI, in Dutch: KEI), of which the digitisation of justice is the most important part, would be reset. The Minister, however, adjusted this decision, stating that the QAI programme was frozen. Further discussions with the Council for the Judiciary to ensure that certain basic safeguards are in place have to be awaited. In this blogpost, we highlight key issues underlying what seems to be a crisis in the digitisation of justice in the Netherlands, and we discuss the way forward.
Concerns about the QAI digitisation project have been in evidence over a longer period, mainly regarding delays in the implementation and the costs. It is indicative that costs have increased up to 220 million euros, although the initial budget in 2012 had been set at 7 million euros. By the beginning of 2018, only 5% of the initial ambitions had been realised, while the aim was to complete full implementation of this ambitious programme this year (2018). In order to get the QAI back on track, the Council has assigned an external committee to conduct a review. In its letter, the Council refers to a research report that had identified several problems with the ditisatio project. The report concluded that the ambitions were too high; the envisioned programme was too complex; the task and responsibility division between the Council, the courts, and the IT department was unclear; and the ICT architecture was not clearly framed.
Largely in agreement with these findings, the Council announced that ambitions should be lowered by shifting the focus from the automatisation of legal proceedings to digital communication and accessibility. The Council acknowledged that governance of the digitisation process should be simplified; responsibilities and competences clarified; and the ICT strategy revised. Before this reset can be launched, however, Minister Dekker requires that sufficient safeguards be in place, stressing the importance of everyone involved agreeing on the proposed measures; the need for the right people to be in the right place; and the need for governance to be clearly structured.
The decision to freeze the QAI programme is a major setback for the essential digitisation of justice process. Many stakeholders − including lawyers, bailiffs, and academics − have devoted significant resources in terms of time and money to the project. A myriad of workshops, seminars, and training courses have been organised in order to inform practitioners, and law schools have incorporated the QAI programme into their courses. Practitioners have also adjusted their work processes to prepare for digitisation implemented by the QAI programme. Therefore, the Dutch Bar Association (NovA) has indicated their desire to be involved in upcoming discussions on the future of the QAI (see their communication regarding the latest QAI developments).
But the times they are changing, and the show must go on. We therefore hope that upcoming discussions between the Ministry and the Council for the Judiciary – the first of which took place on 25 April 2018 – will ultimately facilitate as much as possible the unavoidable and crucial digitisation process, in order for the Dutch judiciary to keep up with the ongoing development of digitisation worldwide, as well as to maintain its connection with society. At the moment, it looks as though it will be autumn before we know how digitisation of the Dutch judiciary and civil proceedings will proceed.