Digitization is a priority of the Ministry of Justice for the coming years. Technology can contribute not only to the independence and efficiency of the judicial act and the system in general, but also to the improvement, to the facilitation of access to justice for all people.

Petru Vîrlan is the Deputy Director of the Agency for Court Administration (ACA), an institution subordinated to the Ministry of Justice, responsible for ensuring organizational activities of courts, which involves a long list of tasks, including the administration and development of the court information system. 

The Judicial Information System has four components: the Integrated File Management Program (PIGD), which is an application for internal use by the courts; The IT solution for court hearings, which ensures the audio recording of the hearings and participation by video conference at the hearing; The e-Court File, which is at the testing stage, but wants to be extended to all courts and with access for all participants in the court process and the National Court’s Web Portal, which represents a single point of access to information about the activity to all courts and is accessible to all. Of course, courts are only one element of justice, but on digitization they can be a good example of how things are improved when there is a will.

Cu DREPTul: We will start discussing ACA’s and the Ministry of Justice’s visions of digitization.

Petru Vîrlan: Today, we are very much guided by the Action Plan of the Ministry of Justice and the Justice Sector Strategy for 2022-2025, in which digitization of the justice process in Moldova is a priority point. In fact, this process is a natural one. Digitization is largely an ongoing process and we are aware of this fact today and try to introduce it in our areas, because many processes are digitized in our country today, nor should justice be left behind. However, in addition to the convenience it brings to the litigants, it also means efficiency, as digitization of processes means a shorter timeframe, because court trials – I speak as a whole – must be digitized. In fact, today we have the ICMS, which stands for the Integrated Case Management System, where every judge manages their electronic case file today, with a very strict tracking of the actions that a judge and the litigants take within a court trial, be it a criminal, civil, contravention or administrative case. Electronic tracking is kept of everything related to court, which is a means of security for both the judges and the members of a court trial. Court hearings are recorded using the FEMIDA Audio System and participants can have access to the court hearings and, for example, can request to have it used in the trial, which ensures the security of both the trial participants and the court.

However, today we are talking about a broader process, a process in which litigants are already involved and where the filing of claims is done electronically. Today this is somewhat natural and necessary, and we are aware that we need to take some concrete action.

That is why the e-case-file pilot application that is being developed in Bălți, Edineț and Ungheni is specifically designed to bring solutions to this segment, so that litigants and justice professionals, lawyers – we are holding discussions with the Prosecutor General’s Office – with the support of the e-Governance Agency, file the documents they come to court with electronically using e-case-file and manage them by themselves therein; schedule a court hearing or a common agenda where the judge sees the availability of the parties, as well as the parties see when the judge schedules a court hearing. Such trials only come to facilitate the work of the litigants, as we have another problem that takes a very long time – the timeframe for the examination of cases. There are many trials and many actions that must be provided, and the judge must summon the parties in due time, must take a number of actions that are mandatory under the Procedure Code, and such actions can also be taken via e-case file, so that they can be more easily implemented and the rights of parties in court trials are respected.

Cu DREPTul: Just to make sure I understand correctly, digitization of justice is an umbrella term that includes a number of players. The agency you represent is actually in charge of courts.

Petru Vîrlan: Exactly.

Cu DREPTul: You are speaking about digitization of court trials, which is one piece of the process or of this entire justice digitization puzzle and one of the players involved in justice-making. Where are we standing now, your side, and where do we want to be in the next, say, one, two, five years?

Petru Vîrlan: I am referring to the statements made by Veronica Mihailov-Moraru who said that digitization of justice does not relate only to courts but is a whole range of actions, because it includes digitization of freelance professions, and many justice players apart from courts. We, because our priority area is the courts and we are involved in the relationship with the citizens but of course the other processes are already coordinated by the Ministry of Justice according to its competences and those who are responsible, the specialized directorates in this regard.

Today we have the e-case-file application in the form we have it. In fact, there is no limit in the field of digitization. Every time, technologies develop very fast and we somehow have to catch up and be on top with such developments as well.

But our main goal for the next three years is to make the relationship between the litigants and the courts as easy and as accessible as possible, so that litigants can file their claims in court and can manage the evidence they present in court, are able to schedule a court hearing and to receive notifications about the trial, and are even able to receive the judgment in electronic form.

That is because for all those trials I have mentioned, each time they are required to go to court, which causes them a great deal of inconvenience and costs for the court, as it must administer such claims, and for the litigants as they have to go to court a number of times. And they must even move during court hearings. There is also the idea that they can participate in court hearings by videoconference, because we have a reality in the Republic of Moldova and we have a large number of citizens abroad, who are part of the diaspora, and because of this we have a great deal of postponements, and there have even been some test hearings and they have been very effective.

Cu DREPTul: You mentioned them together, somehow, or one came up from the other – about e-case-file and videoconferencing – while I wanted to ask you separately about them. The pandemic showed us that many things are possible and I was even looking at the figures i.e. before the pandemic, videoconferences were virtually around 0, and there have already been tens of thousands now. There is a big discrepancy, in some courts, videoconferences are not recorded at all, others excel very well. What lessons has this period taught us?

Petru Vîrlan: The pandemic, in fact, has been a catalyst for court trials and videoconferences. In the situation where they could not be transported to the court, especially we are talking about people who are in detention, the only solution was for them to participate by videoconference, that’s why convicts accepted and it was very effective, because they could present their views and the judge could rule, as a great number of actions in the prison should be allowed by a judge and judges had to attend the court hearings somehow. That’s why, yes, we had a very critical situation in 2019, when we had tens of court hearings, while in 2020 we already had 20,000 court hearings held by videoconference. And today we continue this type of hearings, because they are economically efficient, because no more staging costs are incurred, because, you realize, the convict from prison X must travel to a court which is in another district or perhaps to the Court of Appeals which may be hundreds of kilometers away, and we see that this figure of videoconferences is increasing a lot – about 32,000 court hearings held by videoconference in 2022, which is very much.

Cu DREPTul: And not just convicts?

Petru Vîrlan: Juveniles have been heard by videoconference, witnesses from abroad have participated, Amnesty International judges have participated in such videoconferences and they have proved to be very effective in this respect.

Cu DREPTul: Do you want videoconferencing to be an integral part of the future e-case-file, the way you think it should look like? E-case-file is being tested now in two courts in the country. After these first results, since it has been already more than a year in practice, how is it working, what are the conclusions and what do you want to develop or what form to reach?

Petru Vîrlan: We realize what we need to improve in this system. IT systems always need to be improved and only by working with them can we figure out what is good and what needs to be improved for a trial to work more efficiently, but we realized that it would be very good for us to somehow integrate videoconferencing and e-case-file. And one of the priorities is to identify a technical solution to integrate e-case-file with videoconferencing, so that citizens, having the possibility to participate in videoconferencing from other locations, which are certainly allowed by judges, are able to participate in the court trial. This process will have a quicker solution from an economic point of view as well, because we have often seen situations where citizens had to come from abroad to attend a court hearing. And again, it is a very broad process and the judge must coordinate the agenda of the court hearing in advance, and often postponements we have been talking about today happen.

Cu DREPTul: In essence, what is e-case-file now?

Petru Vîrlan: In fact, it is a technical solution, a system to which the litigant, well, it is being piloted now, and lawyers are allowed, they file a claim from their office or home, administer evidence in the case, or become acquainted with the case. There is also the possibility of having an electronic calendar where they can suggest a date for the trial and the judge, if available, can accept it. The judge may also request to have a trial and the parties may accept it. Basically, e-case-file mirrors the actions that can be performed physically, i.e. filing applications with the courts and other actions, except that they are done online, i.e. they are done electronically and, for this, one needs electronic security elements, an electronic signature, for the documents to be signed electronically, for the electronic documents to have validity.

Cu DREPTul: These few months of testing, what have they actually shown, what conclusion have you come to?

The conclusion shows that this application is really necessary.

Petru Vîrlan: At the beginning, when we launched it in Bălți, there was some resistance from the lawyers – most of them are the current beneficiaries – because they did not know about it and were saying, “Why do I have to sign electronically, using an electronic signature?” Many of them did not even have an electronic signature. Two or three months passed and we were getting an increased number of calls, more lawyers were calling in, “I want it too, I want to have access to the system too,” as they’d seen it was possible to send certain documents to court from their mobile phones and this has made their work much easier. You realize, they don’t have to travel hundreds of kilometers to court to get acquainted with the case file. Effectiveness has been seen in the lawsuits lawyers file today and, in fact, they are already managing their case files. Moreover, our colleagues at the General Prosecutor’s Office are also very interested in having access to this application.

Cu DREPTul: In practical terms, is this e-case-file intended to be the digital equivalent of a case file?

Petru Vîrlan: In fact, today we have an electronic case file in court, but it is the court’s case file for the most part. However, it exists both on paper, because it is mandatory, and electronically, because all the actions are somehow shown electronically, and from the receipt of the writ of summons, when it is uploaded in the ICMS, until the issuance of the judgment, all this information is posted in the ICMS and we can see it whenever we want. However, today we want to go farther, because the parties that participate in e-case-file – and here I am talking about the litigants, lawyers, court professionals, public institutions that also participate in courts, for example, in an administrative litigation trial – are already able to manage their e-case-files, as we have people who have many cases, for example, in courts and in a number of institutions.

We also aim to have a mobile application, so that they can have access to the documents that have been filed in courts and they can be notified electronically about the actions that are coming up in relation to their case.

Court hearings most frequently do take place, as we spent about 10 million lei on summoning costs last year alone. I’m talking about courts across the country, but this money would be better directed to the development of electronic systems that would allow us to improve the system of access to justice much more and citizens would be more satisfied.

Cu DREPTul: And can such costs be excluded?

Petru Vîrlan: These can be reduced to a minimum. We cannot totally exclude the conventional system from courts because it is a reality. We still have citizens today who do not yet have access or perhaps have access but do not have the knowledge to access electronic systems. There are probably people who have a more skeptical view on this and I have seen people who very much accept that the court, even if electronic, or the physical one, which is on paper, has the same legal value; however, if there are a stamp and a signature applied, then it is more convenient and has a greater legal value for the citizen. I mean, it’s about the concept and the legal education that we have as citizens, and this also requires a country-wide legal education, but everything is done in time.

Cu DREPTul: A great deal of changes and improvements and all that digital stuff – how do we make sure that the person for whose benefit all these improvements are made is informed and is able to use them?

Petru Vîrlan: I referred earlier to general legal education. Legal education is acquired not only in schools, in universities, but also by informing the public that there are other possibilities, that we don’t have to stand in line at the courthouse to get the judgment but that they have access just one click away. In fact, action needs to be somewhat targeted by all public players, including public institutions, NGOs, education institutions, which can contribute to this and, last but not least, the media that educates citizens and informs them about the possibilities they have.

That is because we have a lot of situations where citizens, if they see, for example, possibilities to ease certain activities, they will definitely use them.

Or at the beginning, for example, when the ICMS was implemented; we had actually started the development, the digitization of the justice system much earlier. In 2009 it was established that courts should implement the Integrated Case Management System and the first courts started working using the ICMS; however, at that time court judgements were still written in pen.

Today, judges cannot imagine their work without the ICMS.

Cu DREPTul: How many years did it take for this resistance to be ruled out and for one hundred percent courts to work?

Petru Vîrlan: From the judges’ side, it came gradually and it was across the country already in 2016. Judges are very happy that they can work, because they have understood what the benefits of safety and security of trials are, and that there cannot be a lot of illegalities, because it is very simple, the proceedings are recorded and there cannot be a lot of debates about them. It became clear that the will of the system was also necessary.

Cu DREPTul: You mentioned about paper and I imagined that an e-case-file means zero paper; how is it like now and how big a burden is this duplication, on paper?

Petru Vîrlan: One of the design goals of e-case file is to be as eco-friendly as possible, as environmentally friendly as possible, and that means that a lot of paper is going to disappear from this process, because we today, when filing claims, have from ten to hundreds of sheets, and according to the Procedure Code, the number of civil claims must be filed in as many copies as there are parties to the case. And we have cases with very many parties. So, there are costs and investments that can be minimized in this respect. Another element is that parties can have very simple electronic access through a link they receive to their e-mails and by clicking on it, they will have access to e-case file.

Of course, we can’t exclude paper completely but we can minimize it as much as we can.

We also need to archive some documents but of course there is only one copy; today it is not necessary for the prosecutor, the lawyer, the judge and all parties to have a copy of the case file. You realize how many unnecessary sheets of paper are printed today and e-case file has one of its main objectives to minimize paper consumption and paper use.

Cu DREPTul: At this stage, what are the challenges facing the institution you represent and the justice system?

Petru Vîrlan: First of all, economic challenges. In order to have a very good digitized system and to really reflect the digitization needs of the judicial system, some investments are needed.

Investments in IT are not very small but they bring benefits in a very short time and we can very easily justify them.

However, financial resources are needed, so that we can make the developments in this sense, so that we can promote these developments and so that the system has the technical possibilities. We are very happy that the budget has been increasing in this regard in the recent years and we are succeeding. Of course, it is not enough, but we are trying. Another solution is to seek funds, our development partners to come up with contributions, and we are very happy that this is happening and we today have several projects that help us.

Other challenges are, again, legal education of litigants but also of professionals who somehow look at it as it was in the beginning, as judges but also lawyers were looking at it, skeptical, with this…

Cu DREPTul: With disbelief.

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, with disbelief, but after that, I believe that with more information provided to the public and litigants, this barrier is overcome and we can already see the benefits. Human resources are also a big problem today because in courts we have an acute shortage of employees, clerks, assistants, as well as several vacancies in the agency. I said at the beginning that, economically, there is still the problem of salaries, but, in fact, a lot of technology is needed in courts as well, because we have a great number of employees and the technology is quite outdated in many courts, and we have a great deal of requests for computers from judges.

Cu DREPTul: You cannot do digitization without good computers.

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, sure, you cannot do it without good equipment. The computer and the system are the main source. You realize that a computer that is as old as the ICMS, from 2009, has certain capabilities today while our today’s phone is much more powerful than a computer of 2009 and this equipment must periodically be improved.

There is need to improve about 60 percent of equipment in courts today.

Courts have their own budgets but they are very austere and can afford some very small costs every year. Of course, in this respect we are very happy that our development partners also make contributions and we often have a lot of donations. They help us with computers, technology, videoconferencing technology, for example. There are some costs that are currently too high for our system and every time we think where to find financial sources to invest, as this is in fact an investment.

Cu DREPTul: What are the benefits of this digitization if it involves so many costs?

Petru Vîrlan: The investments assessed as needed are much smaller in size than the costs we incur on certain processes today. We spend a lot of money on transferring case files from one office to another, on buying paper, on subpoenaing people.

These are costs that can be replaced and this money is actually in the system and it needs to be spent anyway, accounted for, and it is a larger process to redirect it to priority needs.

We see, for example, in other countries of the European Union or which are members of the Council of Europe expenditures for justice and digitization that are much higher, because, as we were talking right in the latest discussion at the European Commission with our colleagues, such expenses incurred are, in fact, an investment, and we invest in the relationship between the public and the court, so that the court is as friendly and as accessible as possible for the citizen and so that the time spent in court and in the trial is organized as well as possible, so that the citizen is satisfied with justice-making, with the fact that they have had very easy access to justice-making, and the justice made has been efficient and transparent.

Cu DREPTul: Often in discussions there appears this element of money spent, money saved and we risk losing sight of the main benefit – access to justice and the transparency of justice.

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, in fact, I was talking to a number of fellow judges: the main thing for justice is not the savings that have been made in court, the main thing is that access to justice is efficient for the person being tried, that the person being tried is satisfied with the justice made, that they are the main objective of justice.

Of course, there is this element of economy, but the main objective, as my colleagues have said, and I repeat, is for justice to be efficient, transparent and for the person who comes before the court to have confidence in the justice being made, and for their access to be as easy as possible.

Yes, a great number of processes can be digitized and it will really be possible to use the work of court staff in an analytical process rather than have it as a technical process. Therefore, many court processes are being considered for digitization in order to remove this somewhat bureaucratic approach of having a lot of sheets, a lot of documents, a lot of registers, which can be performed by one action via the electronic system, while court staff would truly focus on justice-making, on the court judgment that is final, and on quality.

Cu DREPTul: Concerning other elements that represent justice but are not part of the justice-making, how is it possible for them to develop in parallel and to be a common vision, as we must admit that for many years in a row they have been working separately, each in their own little garden, and what is going to happen now and what does it imply?

Exactly. I repeat, an overall vision is needed. For example, we cannot look at a digitized court trial in isolation, it is part of a very broad process, and this digitization is coming up for all professions within the justice system.

Petru Vîrlan: The Ministry of Justice in its strategy has also specified that many liberal professions should be digitized, and we have seen the bailiffs’ register, on which a lot of work had been done, and today enforcement procedures are digitized.

It is also very important, for example, for fellow lawyers to digitize their processes internally, e.g. a lawyers’ register – it would be very good for one to exist. So far, we have not had an electronic warrant of the lawyer. And it would be very easy to provide it. However, you realize that this lack stops digitization of court trials because if the warrant is not electronic, it must somehow come to the knowledge of the judge, to see that this document is authentic.

I have given you an example of how important it is for this vision to be systemic, because the justice process starts at the stage of criminal proceedings, when an act, a contravention or a process is established, from when a claim is filed and until the execution of the judgment, which is a final act. And here we are talking about a civil court judgement, when, for example, the bailiff executes it, or a criminal one, when they have access to a prison or a probation office and keep track of prohibitions, for example. Again, it can be easily established electronically.

And this vision can certainly be provided by the Ministry of Justice, as the main authority in this respect, which is responsible and which coordinates actions.

We always try to co-opt all our colleagues, and we have had a very good discussion with the lawyers, and with the prosecutors, so that the system takes up their point of views on this, and that their needs are implemented in this system and in all the systems we have.

Cu DREPTul: I realize that it’s not limited just to the case file movement, it’s a much more complex process. If we talk about duration, ideally, what periods, years, time are we talking about?

Petru Vîrlan: Of course, in today’s conditions, the e-case file application that we have and the objectives that we have in order to come closer to the citizens and to make access to justice as easy as possible, for such actions planned, it would take about three years, including the period of development of information systems, the period of interconnection, the period of analysis, review of the processes and…

Cu DREPTul: Legal amendments…

Petru Vîrlan: Legal amendments, yes, it is quite an extensive process and, last but not least, informing and educating citizens and those who will be the final beneficiaries of the general application throughout the country. Again, I repeat, in this process, we, as an institution, and the other institutions should have the institutional capacity to manage and the institutional capacity should be very good.

This past year we have actually had very good results and somehow the cart has started to move much better out of place.

Cu DREPTul: What is the most needed service or services in the justice system that should and can be digitized in the near future, this year?

Petru Vîrlan: In fact, when we talk about services that are necessary in the field of justice or a priority, we are talking about a development process. In 2009, we had a situation whereas today we are in a different situation. The purpose has been to have all cases today administered by judges electronically. Record-keeping is a single system and today, yes, it is unthinkable to be without the ICMS application. Today there is a new level where the main objective is to make it as easy as possible for the litigant to have access to courts, to court activities, to file their claims. A priority would be for them to have access to the agenda of court hearings electronically, to be able to file certain applications to the court electronically, to be able to see the case file and to be able to file, for example, an appeal claim also via e-case file, i.e. the actions that today they can do physically and that require time and resources, they should be able to do electronically, which would save a lot of their time and resources spent in this respect.

Cu DREPTul: And are they all in the e-case file?

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, these are all solutions that today are included in the e-case file technical solution, which will enable and allow these things to become reality.

Cu DREPTul: If we are talking about services that can and should be digitized in the near future, outside the court trial, but in the justice system?

Petru Vîrlan: It is very necessary to have the processes within the prosecutor’s office included, the administration of a prosecutor’s case file, because I know there is an e-case file system in the prosecutor’s office as well, also called e-case file, but they somehow administer the case files within the prosecutor’s office and there is no finality when the prosecutor’s final act and the case file is electronically sent to court. We need to find a solution. Also, the electronic warrant is one of our main objectives. Today we have it in the most rudimentary form, that paper the lawyer has and…

Cu DREPTul: The little piece of paper that if you have lost…

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, it is a rather delicate situation, but it is a reality that we have and that requires a very urgent solution today. Again, other public institutions that participate in court should also be able to participate electronically, as there will be an institutional saving of resources, time and even human resources. So, these are some priorities and some needs that are pressing in the system today, outside of the court docket in the court. As e-Gov used to say, for example, “If I have my electronic document and another one comes with a physical document, well, we can’t compare them, because we have to have the same criteria.”

Cu DREPTul: Speak the same language.

Petru Vîrlan: Yes, to speak the same language. Or we’ve had situations where the lawyer tells you, “I electronically signed the document”, and we have the possibility to check the document on the MSign website. But how did he sign the document electronically? There is a symbol there for signing, and he had copied it. He simply copied that image and pasted it onto the file and thought he had electronically signed the document. So, again, there is a need for education in this regard, about the difference between a physical document and an electronic document, and what the elements of security are, because often even electronic documents can be more secure and protected than physical documents. This is an ongoing process and we believe that we will need a longer period of work to train and inform people, and litigants, and professionals. We must not be afraid of change, we must all be aware that each of us is part of the change and we, being aware that we can change things, must get involved in the process. And the digital justice system is here to help us with support, to make our work and the work of justice employees, but also access to justice, easier. I repeat, to be efficient, to be transparent and for a litigant to be satisfied with justice-making as a whole, in addition to the fact that they receive a court judgement, there is a range of actions in which they participate – court hearings, filing of claims – and you realize that if this process is very formalistic, is somewhat bureaucratic, it leaves a bitter taste. And this is why we must be as close as possible to the litigants and make sure that access to justice is provided according to the best recommendations made by our development partners, but which we also have in our action plan.