Some years ago, a pilot project was launched in selected Magistrate’s Courts, including Durban, to test the possibility of processing all litigation paperwork electronically.
It was proposed that the plaintiff’s attorney would e-mail the summons to the Clerk of the Court for issue. The Clerk would print the summons, stamp it, allocate a case number, and then file the hard copy in the appropriate case file. At the same time, the stamped copy would be scanned and e-mailed back to the plaintiff’s attorney and simultaneously e-mailed to the appropriate sheriff for service. The sheriff would print out the summons, serve it on the defendant, and submit a return of service by e-mail both to the Clerk and to the plaintiff’s attorney.
The defendant’s attorney could then give notice of intention to defend and lodge a plea in defence of the claim in exactly the same way.
At the time, the profession was excited over the possibility of bringing a matter to the trial stage in this way which seemed to envisage reductions in staff numbers and costs together with the advantage of remaining in the air-conditioned comfort of one’s own office.
Sadly, the experiment seems to have disappeared into a proverbial “black hole”. As far as is known, no report on the outcome of the project was ever made public.
Nevertheless, the door to the possibility of eventual electronic proceedings has again been prised open to admit a small sliver of light. Last year, the rules of the High Court were amended so as to permit every litigant to place his/hers or the attorney’s fax number and e-mail address on every pleading, and to cater for the electronic exchange of pleadings, where the parties have agreed to this procedure. Simultaneously, the distance from the Court of a physical address which must be furnished at which a litigant will accept service of papers has been extended from 8 kilometres to 17 kilometres. This change recognises the migration of legal professional practices from the CBDs of Johannesburg and Durban to outlying areas. In Durban, for example, it means that law offices in La Lucia Ridge fall within the 17km radius and need no longer provide an address nearer to the Court for the delivery of documents.
Unlike the original pilot project, the original papers in each instance must be delivered physically to the office of the Court registrar for filing in the case file. Apart from this requirement, the attorneys for both parties can, in theory, happily exchange their documents electronically.