We are living at a time when the reliability of facts and evidence has never been more threatened. The increasing sophistication of advanced technologies continues to expose our digital content to the possibility of hacks, leaks, and manipulation at alarming rates.
In the legal sphere, there is an urgent need to ensure the digital information we cite and rely upon in the judicial system is verifiable, sourced properly, and immutable. Fortunately, innovative technologies, specifically blockchain—or Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)—provide a unique opportunity to authenticate, validate, and secure the information we use in the courtroom, while also providing impetus to drastically improve existing processes.
The process of digitization, or converting information into a digital (computer-readable) format, is sweeping across every industry globally, including the justice system.
It was announced in the U.K. in 2018 that approximately 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs were being lost due to the government’s drive to modernize the justice system through online pleas and remote video hearings. In November 2019, U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) introduced bipartisan legislation to help police officers learn how to access digital evidence, including data and online messages, during investigations.
Forming a key part of this “going-digital” shift is the exploration of blockchain as a secure method to record important information and streamline processes in courtroom proceedings and legal interactions. Blockchain has a number of key features that make a good case for its integration into legal proceedings, with an extensive list of use cases in the courtroom.
Advanced Levels of Security
First, given the decentralized nature of blockchain technology, information can be stored across regions in a network of computers as opposed to an easily hackable data silo. Much like a traditional ledger, blockchain provides a record of transactions, however, it is encrypted and distributed, meaning it is nearly impossible to hack.
From a legal point of view, cybersecurity threats are increasingly prevalent today, and blockchain can provide advanced levels of security for this data. In July 2019, the Administrative Office of the Georgia Courts fell victim to a hack that forced its systems offline—the importance of ensuring judicial data is securely stored is a growing issue that must be addressed.
In addition to providing security, blockchain makes accessing information much more streamlined and efficient, while catering for the representation of evidence in a digital format. As the digitization of courtroom processes continues, this evidence can be cryptographically sealed, proving its origin and securing its authenticity.
Currently, several companies and governments are attempting to patent the use of blockchain for administering legal documents.
In China, the Hangzhou Internet Court decided in 2018 that the use of blockchain technology in evidence verification can be admissible on a case-by-case basis.
Delaware’s General Corporation Law now permits corporate records such as “its stock ledger, books of account, and minute books” to be held in the form of “one or more electronic networks or databases (including distributed electronic networks or databases).
Similarly, the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Courts has announced its plan to form a joint-task force to specifically develop a network built on blockchain technology and smart contracts to explore verification of court judgments and sharing of documents in real-time for efficient cross-border law enforcement.
In a similar vein, blockchain has been heralded as an effective mechanism to execute contracts that legal professions traditionally oversee. A wide variety of day-to-day transactions require lawyer oversight for execution, however, blockchain allows for a contract to be executed digitally, reducing the need for legal instruments.
Smart contracts can remove the need for an intermediary in transactions while drastically reducing associated costs. Once a lofty ambition, this innovation is at the cusp of mainstream adoption and could steer us toward a trustless judicial system.
We know that courts are moving away from paper-based models—the 62nd Annual Meeting of the International Association of Judges and the International Association for Court Administrators characterized paper-based records as ineffective in case and evidence management, describing them as a major impediment that courts face today.
By taking steps to understand the benefits DLT can offer in terms of security and decentralization, we can accelerate the use of blockchain in legal proceedings. Blockchain technology, if harnessed correctly, can turn the tide on judicial mistrust, and be the solution that provides digital-based evidence in a more secure, accessible manner.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Greg Forst is director of marketing at the Factom Protocol and a founding Factom Protocol Authority Node Operator. He is also currently founder and director of digital marketing for Baltoro; partner at Go Immutable, where he provides enterprise blockchain consulting as a service; and a current and founding member of the Blockchain Council at CompTIA.