Court Technology: An Embarrassment of Hitches

June 28, 2011

A poll of those members of the general public who are IT aware asking for their top nominations for those occupations least likely to embrace innovations in technology might well see lawyers and civil servants near the top of the list – edged out only by harpists and mangel-wurzel harvesters. This is of course most unfair – mangel-wurzel harvesters are speedy adopters of new technology. In short, I do not think there will be much surprise among the general public at the revelation that the bastard child of lawyers and civil servants that is the justice system in England and Wales has been a bit slow in its uptake of IT solutions. It is no surprise but it is unacceptable. The court system makes occasional advances, runs pilot projects that prove the obvious and too often then rolls back to the old business model because investment is never available or because something goes slightly wrong.

The response of HH Judge Simon Brown QC to the MOJ consultation, which I saw via links on {Charles Christian’s Orange Rag blog:}, is devastating though I suspect it is more in sorrow than in anger. But, as a judge who travels the world and speaks eloquently about e-discovery issues and allied technical issues and rubs shoulders with hi-tech judiciary from across the globe, he must mainly have felt embarrassed at the failures of his jurisdiction to match the advances in Singapore or Australia. His response to the MoJ is an admirable document and well worth your attention – do go and read it (it can be downloaded from the panel opposite).

We have talked the talk about technology in the courts – ever since Woolf – but every attempt to walk the walk has stumbled into excuses about budgets and cost. Short-term objections have triumphed again and again and we have a situation where the court may be the only participant in the resolution of a dispute that requires paper so that reams and reams are copied and printed merely for the court’s use. The fax machine and the copier market lives on strongly in the courts. And to think that we once worried about the court technology leaving the professions and the litigant in person behind. There must be court users now who think that they have stumbled into a Dickens novel such is the court system’s addiction to paper and who are completely flummoxed by the court’s need for 6 copies of every document. The response from Judge Simon Brown QC states ‘Electronic ‘Records Management is now the well established universal business practice of all competent firms and companies that are surviving and there is no reason for the courts to exempt themselves from that and so be expensively dislocated from their customers.’

The latest MoJ review seems intent on restricting all sorts of things as a way of cutting back on excessive costs. Time and again the finger is pointed in the consultation papers and speeches at the excesses of the legal profession. It might be wise for the MoJ to consider its own failures to adopt technology and the effect that has on inflating costs before being too sanctimonious. But it cannot do so if cost in Year 1 is the only criterion applied. A sound business case for the adoption of technology by the courts, including the eminently sensible and easily achievable instances outlined by Judge Simon Brown, requires slightly longer-term thinking. As he states: {i}‘Law firms with multiple offices which use the courts have implemented electronic working during the last decade and discovered huge savings. One of these is a firm in which the Justice Minister, Jonathan Djanogoly MP, was a corporate partner: SJ Berwin. According to an article in Legal Week “The paperless office- Cutting the paper chain” SJ Berwin have been able to make ‘huge savings’ and ‘greatly improved working practices’. “A return on investment that translated into a saving of £700,000 in storage alone”. There is no reason to believe that the courts would not similarly benefit. My submission is that in order to improve efficiency and make substantial savings the courts should move to electronic records and electronic working starting with the Birmingham Mercantile Court and TCC.’{/i} Without a change in attitude to technology and its funding, the MoJ may well see its expenditure on the courts reduce. But only because the courts become unusable. And surely a major basic duty of government, after defence and the most basic security, is to provide a {i}workable{/i] court system. We are not asking a lot.