Ten Ways Y2K May Affect the Legal System
by Dennis Kennedy '80
All New Mexico state courts will be closed the first week of January
2000. The reason: concern about the Year 2000 (Y2K)* problem and the desire
to have a whole week to track down problems, test systems, and get everything
in order before opening the court system to the public.
Alarmist? I don't think so. January 1 is a Saturday and already there
has been plenty of talk of declaring Monday, January 3, a federal holiday
to give technicians three full days to battle Y2K before trying to carry
on life as usual. The story of the Y2K problem has been its expansion
into areas such as PCs, Microsoft and other common software products,
and microchips of all kinds. The approach of the New Mexico court system
is a sound one in light of the potential problems the Year 2000 could
cause in our legal system.
Here's a quick tour of 10 ways Y2K could affect our legal system:
1. Older Computers
Courts, law firms, and other parts of the legal system are notorious for
using old computers. Tests indicate that 20% of computers manufactured
even in 1998 may not roll over to January 1, 2000, properly. Legal software
programs are often database applications, the type of software in which
the two-digit year convention that causes the Y2K problem is most likely
to be found.
2. Custom Software
Anytime a custom program has been written, the risk of Y2K problems increases.
Courts use a variety of custom packages to track cases, prisoners, child
support, and other information. In the case of a catastrophic Y2K problem,
these functions may come to a stop. If the consequences of Y2K are data
corruption or the introduction of errors, the problems might be difficult
to track down and eliminate.
3. Missed Deadlines
In the classic case, the Y2K problem results in a date in the year 2000
being treated as a date in the year 1900. Consequences include the possibility
of missed deadlines of all types, notices not being sent, and erroneous
results occurring because of the mix-up in dates. Some of these will be
fixable. In other cases, missed deadlines will not be excused.
4. Overflow of Courts Due
to Y2K Lawsuits
Many legal experts predict a tidal wave of lawsuits likely to arise from
the Y2K problem and question whether the court system will be able to
handle the volume. Currently, proposals are being made to add new courts
to hear the anticipated cases.
5. Speedy Trials
Imagine a variety of delays due to Y2K problems with courts, prosecutors,
and public defenders. All of these problems will put pressure on meeting
a criminal defendant's right to a speedy trial. Presumably, the constitutional
right to a speedy trial will take precedence over a prosecutor's technology
problems, and some people might be back on the street who should not be.
6. Jury Selection
Jury selection tends to be computerized these days. There is a risk of
a Y2K problem in any type of database. One concern is that a failure of
the jury-selection system could delay jury trials. To complicate matters,
alternative methods of selection might be subject to later legal challenge.
7. Loss of Access to Legal
Y2K problems in a courthouse could eliminate or diminish a judge's access
to electronic research services. They might also prevent a court from
releasing opinions to the world on a timely basis.
8. Docket Management and
Courts run on dates and filing systems. Case-tracking software has become
increasingly important to the everyday operations of courts, especially
at a time when we are seeing the first steps toward electronic filing.
Most newer programs should be Y2K compliant. If one of these programs
isn't, however, a court could be brought to a halt.
9. Delay of New Technological
Initiatives, Such as Electronic Filing.
Resources devoted to the Y2K problems are resources that are not funding
new initiatives, such as electronic filing and modernizing courtrooms
for technology used in case presentation. Given that many judges are wary
of computers, Y2K problems could set back technological initiatives for
10. Insufficient Resources
to Address the Problems
Most courts are typically underfunded and have little budgetary flexibility.
The typical court system certainly cannot pay enough to attract and retain
the best people to deal with Y2K problems. The result: a risky situation
in which there are likely dangers and insufficient resources.
The disconcerting aspect of the Y2K problem is its ubiquity. Although
most of the attention is being paid to air traffic control, elevators,
the power and water supply, and nuclear reactors, many other systems present
substantial levels of risk. The legal system is just one example, but
one that raises troubling issues.
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