COURIER-MAIL: Download Your Case! [Law via internet]

If the law won't come to the Internet, then it seems the Internet is coming to the law. MICHAEL WARE reports.

AN Internet star chamber is evolving in the United States with cyber-magistrates about to oversee virtual courtrooms.

"Will the defendant click here to plead not guilty and download his defence?"

The virtual-courtroom move was announced last month by a panel of legal and computer-science experts at the Georgetown University Law School in Washington state.

Tired of the legal quagmire which policing copyright, trademark and censorship laws has become with the Net, the board wants virtual magistrates to determine Internet cases.

Given the international, freewheeling nature of the Net, it has been impossible for conventional legal frameworks to keep pace in cyberspace.

Conflicting legal standards, jurisdictional discrepancies of unprecedented proportions and the impossibility of preventing offences have forced the hand of the Net guardians.

In many ways such a move is not surprising. The law has had a cautious and somewhat tentative feel for the Net and other emerging information technologies. Old worlds colliding with the new.

Yet with a hiccupped, truncated kind of enthusiasm, both the profession and the law are bracing themselves to deliver.

Bill Bennett, editor of PC Magazine Australia, recognises the difficulties with protecting legal rights on the Net, but muses about the legal profession's reticence in adopting new technologies.

"The crux of the matter (with the cyber courts) is who gets chosen to be a virtual magistrate," he said. "The concept in its purest form is great, but we all know that trying to control the Internet is a controversial issue.

"And with information, there are governments that want to put things on-line, but there are companies who make money from putting these things into other forms.

"The real issue is not technology but money. The legal profession has a real problem with using the technology to make this information accessible because I think they do not want to de-mystify the law."

But not everyone in the profession has been slow to make the change.

Within 30 minutes of the US Supreme Court handing down a decision, it is available on the Net, and lawyers armed with laptops and modems can cite the authority immediately in court.

In Florida, the state legislature has set the pace with "On-line Sunshine'', the government/legal site to beat them all.

Florida's lawmakers produce up to 20 megabytes of statutes a day during their annual 60-day sessions, but it is all reproduced on the Net within days. Members of the public can browse through and search statutes, lobbyist information and calendars, all with hyperlinks and all updated daily.

A measure of the interest the site has generated is that 1451 people visited it every week in the first five weeks.

Other well-established sites include the American Civil Liberties Union and the US federal criminal statutes.

The High Court of Australia recently allowed its decisions to be posted on the Net. The move has been ground-breaking considering the prevarication by other superior courts in Australia.

One Queensland court is said to have been poised to publish its decisions on-line for the past two years, but has chosen not to.

Two sources for local legal information are the Australian Legal Information Index and the Australasian Legal Information Institute (but this one can be quite slow).

The interesting thing about the Legal Information Index is that it is the creation of an Australian National University undergraduate, Dan Austin, who must get very little study done, given the amount of work required to maintain this site.

Butterworths, the legal publisher, also has an excellent site with a wonderful collection of links, including a list of all the government sites on the Net. The tragedy was that Queensland was the only state without any sites whatsoever -- but, as of last Friday, there is now a Queensland Government home page.

Searchable indices of federal and state legislation are the most useful sites, but Queensland statutes will not be found, due, it is said, to a jealous guarding of copyright by the State Government.

Although very few Australian law firms are on the Net (Butterworths' list of firms on the Net is seven names long), some are eagerly embracing advances in information technology.

Databases of statutory regimes and common-law precedents have been developed, first as in-house reference guides then as saleable products for major clients.

Feez Ruthning offers its clients an environmental law database replete with all the relevant obligations, offences and penalties.

"There is no doubt this is a growth area," Feez Ruthning executive director John Hall said. "Clients will be better informed. They won't have to come to us for everything.

"We see ourselves in the future having to target the problem-solving side of the law, no longer the day-to-day things. Databases like this will release us from that.

"These, and greater electronic communication with clients, colleagues and government, will make for a much more effective profession; more timely, but much more stressful."

Greater communication through e-mail, the Internet and other networks will make clients the winners, according to many.

"It comes down to better client service. Lawyers are information dealers," Clayton Utz's Geoff Hartley said.

"Information of itself is worth nothing; but the right information at the right time is worth a great deal. It is really about offering clients a faster response because we have quick access to more information."