A law to establish a system allowing citizens to electronically access legal documents was approved Monday by the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection.
The bill is based on a uniform law adopted in 2011 by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform Laws.
Monday’s hearing drew nothing but support for the legislation from the testifiers and committee members alike. Should the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act be signed into law, the U.S. Virgin Islands would become the 23rd jurisdiction to enact it.
Bill sponsor Sen. Carla Joseph said the legislation is “critical,” as it will “eliminate the barriers we have been placing” on access to information “especially in the midst of this pandemic.”
Attorney Tom Bolt, chairman of the V.I. Uniform Law Commission, told committee members there were several benefits to adopting the uniform law.
“In establishing a framework for states and territories to publish official legal material online, Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act makes the legal system easier to access for laypeople, as well as attorneys. It lowers the cost barriers to the legal system for citizens and helps self-represented litigants by ensuring ready access to official and trustworthy legal information,” Bolt said.
The law would require all electronic documents to be authenticated, preserved, and made permanently accessible to the public. And because of the nature of a uniform law, it provides an additional benefit, he added.
The law allows “for reciprocity between adopting states, which brings efficiency and cost-savings to business dealings and court proceedings,” Bolt said. “For example, an enacting state’s electronic legal materials covered by Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act will be recognized by courts in other enacting states as presumptively authentic, making expensive and time-consuming proofs unnecessary.”
Wolf Law Library Director Leslie Street told the committee that electronic information has given rise to the opportunity for people to have “the laws that govern them at their fingertips.”
“One of the most important hallmarks of any democracy is not only that citizens have the right to vote and petition their government, but that the public also have access to the laws that they are governed by,” Street said.
Not just laws, but a multitude of documents could be provided, some documents that Bolt said the public hasn’t seen in over 10 years.
“Years ago, there was published the opinions of the attorney general. We haven’t seen that published in 10 to 15 years now,” Bolt said. “It would help justice in the Virgin Islands if those could be published and could be made available to the Virgin Islands public in electronic form.”
Bolt added that in the past the territory had court libraries available to the public but they no longer are.
“Virgin Islanders have been cut off access from there. It’s not as simple as going down to the court anymore … There is a crying need for Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act in the territory,” he said.
All seven committee members – Sens. Joseph, Novelle Francis Jr., Marvin Blyden, Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan James Sr., Franklin Johnson, and Milton Potter voted to advance the legislation to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, where it will be further reviewed. Additional senators who are not committee members also were present.