ICT AND THE LEGAL PROFESSION

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Source: Internet

     The advent of ICT is a welcome development not only to legal practice but to every other aspect of human existence. Thanks to ICT, the world has become a global village where tasks and interactions that used to take days and months now take place with the speed of lightening. Information Communication Technology (ICT)is an umbrella term that includes all technologies for the manipulation and communication of information. The legal practice entails a lot of documentation, information processing, storage and retrieval.
     ICT is an acronym, a short form for Information Communication Technology(ies). It refers to technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications. It covers any product that stores, retrieves, manipulates, transmits or receives information electronically in a digital form. This includes the Internet, intranet, email, wireless networks, cell phones, and other communication mediums. The ICT while concerned with the storage, retrieval and manipulation of digital data is also concerned with the way these different uses can work with each other.
     The legal practice on the other hand is the application of the law and all its attendant dimensions. The coming of the colonial masters brought about the introduction of the common law of England and; our customary law with some modifications was retained. Both the common law and the customary law are what evolved into the court systems that are now the Nigerian legal system.
     In Nigeria, Information and Communication Technology has affected several aspects of human life. In the banking sector, the introduction of e-banking (online internet transactions) is a product of ICT. The use of computers in student registration and result processing; and the use of the internet in the conduct of scholarly research is a welcome development in the Nigerian Education system courtesy of ICT. The use of computers for on-site computations and analysis as well as the development of Computer-Aided-Designs (CAD) in the engineering sector are also positive ways in which ICT has helped and improved our lives in Nigeria.
     More importantly and as is particular to this discourse, legal practice is not left out. The impact of ICT on legal practice can be described as both evolutionary and revolutionary. Evolutionary in the sense that, it is a gradual process. Revolutionary in the sense that, the legal profession which is known to be very conservative and reserved to change could not escape the ICT movement. In the words of Douglas S. Schnell, when the first personal computer appeared in a law office, the practice of law underwent a profound change.
     Amidst others, these are some of the constituents of ICT
1- COMPUTER:- this is an electronic machine that accepts data, processes the data and gives useful information. It could be digital, analog or hybrid in function, it could be mainframe, minicomputer or micro computer in size.
2- EMAIL:- is the transmission and distribution of messages, information, facsimiles of documents, etc., from one computer terminal to another.
3- INTERNET:- is made up of public telecommunication systems which are used to carry information from host computers.
4- INTRANET:- an internal network designed to provide and disseminate information internally in an organisation or firm.
5- EXTRANET:- a network designed to provide, disseminate and share confidential information.
6- SOCIAL MEDIA OUTLETS:- communication outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Mxit, Instagram et.c
7- CELL PHONES:- a portable telephone operated by cellular radio.
8- SOFTWARE:- are the programs that can be used with a particular computer system. The three basic types of software are available- Operating system software, Utility software and Application software.
     In Nigeria however, Information and Communication Technology still has a long way to go and a lot to offer in the practice of law. The following are ways in which ICT can aid legal practice in Nigeria:
(1) THE CLIENT-ATTORNEY RELATIONSHIP:- prospective clients can search online for reputable law firms and particularly those specialising in the legal services they require. This can be made possible when law firms create websites with detailed information about their establishment and services. By doing this, quality information about law firms and legal practitioners would be just a few clicks away. Information about past cases handled by the firms can be put online also to boost clients’ confidence in their services.
Client counselling can also be done online via social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp amongst others.
(2) LAW OFFICE OPERATIONS:- ICT can help the practice of law in Nigeria by facilitating such daily office practices in a law firm. Starting from the reception area, visitors and clients alike can fill in electronic logs to register their presence in the office. They could even book their appointments beforehand via E-mailing and Instant Messaging. Further, routine processes such as legal drafting, filing court processes, making of deeds, issuing of receipts to clients can also be done with the aid of computers. Clients can even pay for legal services via electronic banking system(e-transfers). The extranet can be used to pass or share information with clients especially where a law office has multiple clients to communicate with on one case or where there are co-counsels and others to co-ordinate strategy with on one case.
(3) COURT OPERATIONS:- electronic filing is one of the key ways in which ICT can improve legal practice in Nigeria. Court processes can be filed via e-mail. Through this, the time bound hard copy filing is substituted with twenty four hours electronic filing. Court records can also be uploaded online for easy access and perusal to dymystify the operations of the legal system in Nigeria. As the business world has substituted face-to-face activities with video conferencing, so might the courts. Courts can adopt technology as a substitute for personal appearances in some cases. Recorded electronic testimonies can be admitted in court in place of the traditional live testimony. Witnesses can give live testimony by video hookup (video conferencing instead of pre-recorded testimony.
(4) ELECTRONIC INVESTIGATION AND DETECTIVE WORK: e-discovery is the process of obtaining information online. In legal probing and detective works, massive information can be obtained on the internet and kept in softcopy as against the bulky paperwork presently used. Background information about accused persons or suspects can be obtained online via national digital data banks, digitally stored criminal records, work experiences, places lived and so on. Marriage registry records, birth records stored electronically can also be retrieved to aid litigation in divorce and child custody proceedings.
(5) ONLINE LEGAL RESEARCH AND REPORTING:- legal practitioners can conduct online legal research in furtherance of their education or with regards to an aspect of the law via the internet. Law reports can also be stored electronically for ease of access and reference as against the bulky and monotonous paper record system. Online profiling method can be adopted for documenting cases and client records.
   There’s a whole world of advantages to applying ICT in the law practice. Amongst them are:
– ICT facilitates the storage, retrieval and dissemination of vital legal information
– ICT aids the performance of routine processes like the amendment of law, indexing and abstracting legal documents.
– ICT helps in the publication of research findings.
– ICT through the use of computers checks and inputs information and ensure correctness and completeness of data.
– ICT reduces the bulk of papers being used making movement and storage of information and documents easier.
– ICT sorts information into designed sequence, stores data for future reference and use.
     It would be appropriate to state that computers are doing nothing new; they are only doing what human efforts were doing before but at greater speed and lesser cost. However, ICT revolution in legal practice in Nigeria will entail a massive overhauling of the laws and rules and guidelines and philosophies guiding the legal practice to avoid unnecessary problems such as:
I. The problem of confidentiality and intrusion of the privacy of information owners while researching into electronically stored data for legal purposes. This can be done by regulating how information is obtained such that while useful information is being obtained, the rights to privacy of individuals are preserved.
II. The problem of facelessness in online relations in the attorney-client, law firm-litigants relationship could result in communication break. This is something we will have to adjust to in this internet age.
III. Break in human interaction and strained human relationships as a result of substituting facial and personal contact with social media and electronic networking.
IV. Touting:- putting details of law firms and legal practitioners online(via websites) could escalate into touting, an act prohibited by the rules of professional conduct as stipulated by the Legal Practitioners’ Act
V. Slow,error in connection- this often occurs in using internet services and could hamper the smooth process of legal practice and litigation e.g delayed electronic filing.
VI. Electronic witnessing can be easily compromised and doctored, this could also happen in the admission of e-evidence in the courts of law, appearance by video conferencing and so on.
     Nevertheless, Information and Communication Technology(ies) has more benefits than demerits and will certainly go a long way if employed and improved upon in aiding and upgrading the practice of law in Nigeria and can win us a pride of place in the league of nations as regards legal practice. In the words of Richard Susskind who said, “My expectations of IT and the Internet are that they will fundamentally, irreversibly, and comprehensively change legal practice, the administration of justice, and the way in which non-lawyers handle their legal and quasi-legal affairs….I anticipate in the somewhat regrettable jargon, a complete shift in legal paradigm”.

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