Friday, 18 February 2011

The Future is Not Paper - Third in a Series

How to Verify a Court Document?

Before the technical troubles with the Court Technology Bulletin occurred in the summer of 2010, I had started a series of articles on that the future of court information is not based upon paper documents.  Part 1 and Part 2 can be viewed by clicking on the respective links.

The present “myth" and reality is that a paper court document with a rubber stamp or embossed seal is magically accepted as authentic by all legal authorities.  This is true despite the fact that any elementary school child with a computer and printer (or even white-out and a copier) can forge a paper document.  And unfortunately in recent years there are multiple instances where a fraudulent court document was faxed to a jail and an inmate mistakenly released.

Certainly the banking and financial industry understand that their authentic records are electronic.  And even when a paper financial documents such as "bearer bonds" are created, great effort is made (as with paper currency) using various printing techniques such as embedded fibers and micro-printing to authenticate the physical document (some are wonderful works of art such as this fraudulent one). However, the courts cannot afford to undertake such time consuming and expensive activities.  Instead, it is the court’s online electronic document systems that must provide access to the authentic copy of the document that is not otherwise sealed or protected.

But there is a significant problem that must be addressed to make documents easier to retrieve and verify via the Internet.  This is where the work of the URN:Lex or Universal Resource Name, Legal begins.  The basic concept is that every legal document submitted to or produced by the court (and ideally the entire legal system) would be assigned a unique reference number.

Specifically, “(t)he purpose of the "lex" namespace is to assign an unequivocal identifier, in standard format, to documents that are sources of law. The identifier is conceived so that its construction depends only on the characteristics of the document itself and is, therefore, independent from the document's on-line availability, its physical location, and access mode.”

For the full technical details of the currently circulated draft standard see:

A unique reference number greatly facilitates retrieval of the document from any system and any type of database or file system that would reside in the court or on an open or commercial system; and it would be consistent for all future retrieval systems that are developed.  In addition to easy retrieval and reference, there is a great possibility for URN:Lex to address a vexing problem of electronic information -  document recall.  Courts continually wish to identify and update documents that are incorrect or expired.  The URN:Lex approach allows notifications to be posted and/or distributed; and further allows for systems to be developed with persistent hyper-links such as the online legal publishers have created for statutory and case references.

And finally, this is not to say that visible verification (document file stamps) is not of benefit.  Several courts are adding visible indications of electronic filing as a watermark using the widely available PDF capability.  But a visible verification that includes the URN:Lex would serve multiple legal system needs.  To see a crude example click here.

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