Court Proceedings To Move Into Cyberspace

May 3, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The days of walking to court for lengthy legal battles over who owes whom money may be waning.

URLs and gigabytes now make it possible to file motions, argue cases and negotiate settlements from one’s desk with the simple click of a mouse.

Cybercourt is a statutory initiative of Michigan Gov. John Engler. He urged the measure upon the legislature as part of his vision to make sure that Michigan is at the leading edge of technology in the United States, and to court companies from across the country to come to Michigan in order to increase business and economic flow across the state.

And with a little of the build-it-and-they-will-come theory, Engler hopes to see more technology-based firms flock to Michigan as well.

The Michigan Cybercourt is a technology-equipped courtroom that streamlines some litigation via the Internet. The objective of Cybercourt is primarily to enable businesses to expedite settling disputes with technology.

To the layman, a Cybercourt proceeding would look like a public Internet chat room. Except that if the layman in question weren’t an involved party, he or she could only read the interchanges but would be unable to participate in any way. The only participants would be the judge and the contending parties and their attorneys. 

It is envisioned that arguments, testimonies, motions and the like can be handled via computer and video satellite from off-site locations and even out-of-state locations so that the expense to the parties litigating there will be considerably reduced.

“We at the state bar first heard about this last year and understood it was on a very fast track,” said Scott Brinkmeyer, member of the Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones law firm.

“The state bar felt it was very important to be involved in this process because it necessarily involves the lawyers in the state,” said Brinkmeyer.

He has a feel for the issue since he is the bar’s vice president. He also serves as the bar’s board of commissioners’ liaison to the bar’s Task Force Committee on E-Filing, and he’s a member of the Technical Advisory Group Committee advising the Michigan State Supreme Court.

“We felt it behooved us to protect their interests and, more importantly, to protect the interests of the public we serve, to make sure that all of the courtrooms and all of the policies and procedures that would be involved with the use of the Cybercourt would be implemented and fashioned in such a manner to make sure that those protections would be provided.”

The legislation provides that one purpose of Cybercourt is to allow disputes between business and commercial entities to be resolved with the speed and efficiency required by the information age economy.

The legislation also calls for establishing virtual courtroom facilities and conducting court proceedings electronically, including electronic filing of documents.

“Our primary goal is to increase access to the justice system for individuals and businesses alike,” said Brinkmeyer. “We believe that the implementation of new technology advances such as the cyber court and e-filing will do just that.”

In order to file in Cybercourt, parties waive certain rights they might otherwise have in a typical court of law, circuit court or even federal court. One such right is trial by jury.

“There isn’t going to be a jury in Cybercourt,” Brinkmeyer said.

“It is the judge, both parties and their lawyers. That is why it is best suited for commercial cases.

“I don’t think you are going to find domestic cases and very few collection cases, but it would work for personal injury claims. But, the lack of a jury would be critical to some cases, and in those where it is not necessary, this situation would be ideal.”

The second difference between a cyber court and a traditional court room is that a party may not be forced to appear. Both parties must agree to appear before the cyber court judge.

“Both parties must agree that whatever the matter is that is being litigated can be litigated in Cybercourt and thereby proceed according to the rules that would be implemented in Cybercourt,” Brinkmeyer explained.

“For example, if a corporation — a non-Michigan corporation — were to initiate an action in the State of Michigan, they could do so by filing in Cybercourt, and would then serve process on the other party.

“That other party would then have the choice to elect either to proceed in Cybercourt or to move to a court of the appropriate jurisdiction. They don’t have to waive the rights just because another party has chosen to do so.”

In a related, yet separate topic, the subject of e-filing is something else that has been on the discussion table recently. E-filing would give lawyers the capability to file cases online with another click of the mouse.

A pilot e-filing program currently is underway in the federal district court here. As part of its long-range, strategic goal, the Michigan Bar hopes to implement the e-filing system as part of its overall goal of justice for all.

“It is a key element of the plan of the state bar strategic plan to open the system and to make it user-friendly for all associated, and we think that this is certainly a big step in the right direction,” Brinkmeyer said.

Cybercourt would presumably have e-filing capabilities. However, that remains to be seen because it has not yet been implemented.

Brinkmeyer said one of the first courts where it may be implemented is in Lansing, which will serve as home base for Cybercourt. Brinkmeyer said it would be Michigan’s most technologically advanced courtroom with the equipment and the capability to not only handle e-filing but also off-site satellite video and out-of-state dialogue and proceedings.

“Certainly as to the businesses we (Mika Meyers, Beckett & Jones) represent there is absolutely no question that the availability of the Cybercourt will maximize the efficiency of disputes,” Brinkmeyer said.

Currently more than 40 different computerized systems are in use throughout Michigan’s court system (aside from the district courts.) Brinkmeyer said the clear advantage of having an integrated e-filing system would lie in all parties at different and distant locations having access to information throughout the court system — and ultimately throughout all of the state agency systems.

Brinkmeyer said that given such a system, one could ideally coordinate the filing of litigation and the information necessary to prosecute that litigation by involving whatever state agencies and information might be relevant to a given case. 

Cybercourt legislation also extended ordinary courtroom legal protections to participating Michigan lawyers and their out-of-state colleagues who might practice in Cybercourt even if those lawyers aren’t licensed in the state.

Secondly, the Michigan court rules were drafted to cover the implementation of a cyber court.

“It is an awfully comprehensive job to try and figure out what changes will be necessary to the procedural aspects of the court system that isn’t in existence yet,” said Brinkmeyer. “But nonetheless we gathered our troops and spent an awful lot of time in a very short period in drafting these proposals, and we got very good response from all branches of government.”

The rules have been reviewed by the Supreme Court and are being circulated for comment. Once the comment period is over, Brinkmeyer anticipates the Supreme Court will adopt those rules.

Revisions to the Michigan rules of evidence have also been submitted and are still under consideration by the Supreme Court.

While the kinks continue to work themselves out and cyber lawyers and cyber judges prepare for the future of law, Brinkmeyer said the wave of the future will sweep into town soon.

With an expected start-up date of October 2002, you can look for Cybercourt at a computer near you.

Next stop — cyber jury.

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