SCL at 40: The Middle Years

February 19, 2013

Without access to documents it is not easy to remember many of the events in the middle years of SCL since I first became aware of its existence in 1985:  Ruth Baker tells me that I served on SCL’s Council between 1986 and 1988, and as its President between 1992 and 2001.  It is also not easy to distinguish between the internal activities of the Bar’s Computer Committee and its successors, the activities of ITAC (the Information Technology and the Courts Committee) after its formation in 1985, and the activities of SCL and its working parties.

I first came onto the law and technology scene in 1985, although I had seen a word-processor for the first time and glimpsed the wonders of Lexis, brought to Butterworth’s offices in Chancery Lane from Dayton, Ohio, in the late 1970s.

In 1985 I had just spent two years away from legal London as Counsel to the Sizewell Inquiry, where I had seen the benefits which well-planned applications of modern technology could bring.  Soon after I returned to my practice as a barrister, I was invited to help form the Bar’s first ever computer committee.  Our first chairman, Christopher Bathurst QC, was a silk who knew what computers could do from his experience as a director of a regional newspaper company. One of the committee’s other members was a young barrister who worked for Rank Xerox.  He told us of the advantages of the work station which brought electronically to his desk draft documents, letters and memoranda from his company’s outposts.  I took over the chair in the first year of the Committee’s activities.

In 1985 the Bar’s resistance to computerised accounting systems was fuelled by over-zealous salesmanship by vendors who did not understand the idiosyncrasies of barristers’ charging systems.  Fee notes were still typed out, with carbon copies, and sent out manually from barristers’ clerks’ rooms throughout the Temple and Lincoln’s Inn.  I still possess the 32-page booklet ‘Computers and the Bar’ which my committee published in 1986, to coincide with an exhibition of suitable equipment in Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall that summer.  I see that we strongly recommended to the Bar the second edition of SCL’s advisory booklet called Communications: a Guide to the Electronic Office for Practising Lawyers.  We also gave a plug for SCL:

‘We hope that in future as the valuable work of the Society, which publishes a quarterly magazine and organises conferences, workshops and seminars, becomes better known to the Bar, more barristers will join (annual subscription at present £25).’

We did not, on the other hand, recommend laser printers:

‘They are very expensive (several thousand pounds) and it is hard to see that any set of chambers would find investment in a laser printer a cost-effective investment’. 

One of our early successes was a series of workshops run for barristers and barristers’ clerks by members of SCL, who had previously been unable to stimulate much interest within the Bar.   This was why I first encountered SCL. I went to see Lord Justice Neill, its second president, in his room in the Law Courts.  I remember he told me that he thought he had joined the movement far too early.  Since 1973, he said, the cause of technology and the law had gone backwards almost as often as it had gone forwards, particularly with one over-ambitious project called MicroBird.  He said, however, that things were now going forward again.  He had nearly persuaded the Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham) to approve the creation of a joint committee of civil servants and practising lawyers who would study the place which technology could play in our court system.  Without SCL this would not have happened as early as it did.

In this way ITAC was formed, with eight delegates drawn equally from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the Home Office, the Bar and the Law Society.  I represented the Bar, and the late Bill Bolton, who knew almost too much about IT from his experience in a senior position with IBM in Paris, led for the Law Society.   Sir Brian Neill was our first chairman, and he told us at our first meeting that the general justification for our existence was the need to improve the running of the courts and to reform the costs of legal services by establishing better chains of communication between Government departments and the legal profession.

One of ITAC’s first achievements was to submit two papers to the Civil Justice Review.  In July 1986 we drew attention to all the different ways in which technology could help solve some of the issues with which the review team was grappling in the field of personal injuries litigation.  A year later we advocated greater investment in debt recovery systems and in listing, case management and management information systems.  No doubt driven by Law Society caution, in the search of a consensus we were hesitant about advocating over-rigid systems of computerised case control from the centre.  The main thrust of our suggestions was accepted by the Review team, but was more or less totally ignored by the Lord Chancellor’s Department, for lack of any available funding.  The Treasury simply wasn’t interested.

I suppose I was representing the Bar for two years on the Council of SCL.  I stood down when I became a judge in August 1988.  However, I probably had something to do with the creation of a SCL working party which published six months later a powerful paper advocating the use of computers in the Official Referees’ courts.  Judge Peter Bowsher QC, I am sure, was involved with all this.  These courts were chosen for special treatment because the six Official Referees were now all housed together at St Dunstan’s House, and the courts’ clientele contained many for whom the use of modern technology in their businesses was already a commonplace.  Most of the recommendations in this report formed part of the thinking behind the court modernisation plans developed by the Court Service, with my help, a decade later.  This Working Party ended its report by saying:

‘We conclude that the computerisation of the administration will:

(i) provide the court with the ability to monitor and report on the state and progress of all cases in the Official Referees’ list, and take appropriate early action;

(ii)  improve trial listing performance;

(iii) encourage early settlement of cases by monitoring compliance with orders such as a costs estimate order, or other orders requiring action to be taken which is directed to be notified to the court;

(iv) speed up the production of formal orders and certificates;

(v) cater for cashless payments of fees;

(vi) remove the need for stamping of documents to be carried out in the Royal Courts of Justice;

(vii) automate accounting procedures.

Further, if the proposed computerisation of the administration is linked to an external network accessible to solicitors, this would:

(i) provide for electronic issue of writs;

(ii) provide for the electronic issue of summonses, and the fixing of dates for the hearing;

(iii) enable electronic communication with court staff or court clerks, to supplement the use of the telephone and fax’.

Very little came of any of this.  The Treasury simply did not understand the savings that could be made in terms of overall cost and efficiency.  The report, however, coincided with the development of the legal information communication system called LIX by a barrister, Sean Overend (later His Honour Judge Overend), and a solicitor, John Mawhood.  This was later adopted under the name of FELIX for over ten years as the basic tool for electronic communications and conferencing between members of the judiciary,

In 1992 I succeeded Sir Brian as president of SCL.  The previous autumn, in a speech at a high-level meeting organised by the Foundation of Science and Technology, he had said that the effect of neglecting the IT needs of judges and the courts was as if we were fighting the first Gulf War with the staff officers 300 miles behind the front line all equipped with the most modern IT systems while the front line troops were fighting with bows and arrows.

I have a few scattered memories of the next nine years, when the affairs of SCL were directed by a number of dynamic chairmen, starting with Richard Susskind and featuring such SCL stalwarts as Neil Cameron, Chris Millard and Laurie West-Knights.  I remember a demonstration at Cambridge when we were supposed to witness for the first time a long-distance link with California, which didn’t at first work because someone had failed to join up a cable connection just outside the room where we were watching.  I remember a SCL conference in Bath, where international delegates had to cope with a national rail strike to get there, and I made the introductory speech in a charming Regency Hall from a dais once used by Charles Dickens on one of his whistle-stop lecture tours. I remember a similar conference at Keble College, Oxford, where our international friends were bemused by the College’s Victorian architecture: what we were all talking about I cannot now recall.  I remember a video-conferencing link with Australia, when we were in the Parliament Chamber in the Inner Temple, and we were impressed that they could hear the grandfather clock chiming the hour in the background as we spoke. 

And I remember the competitions for the most innovative IT applications.  One year it was won by the Land Registry, who were more successful in attracting funding for their imaginative initiatives than we ever were in the courts.  Another year it was won by four solicitors in Somerset, whose home-made system eliminated many of the overhead costs that emptied the pockets of clients of more conventional practices.  And I remember going down to read the Riot Act at a Law Society conference in Brighton in about 1993 when I lambasted the profession for being, on the whole, so dilatory in investing in IT applications.

And above all I remember the atmosphere at Chatham House, in St James’s Square, when I chaired a meeting convened by SCL in November 1999 to listen to Professor Graham Greenleaf of AustLII talk about their free access website, and when we all resolved to create an equivalent model in these islands. SCL was in a very real sense the founding father of BAILII, and the generous financial help we were to receive from SCL over the next ten years while I was Chair of BAILII went a very long way to help it survive its precocious infant years.

It was during my time in the heart of SCL, first on its council and then as its president, that it really developed its involvement with IT law, which still flourishes today.  I remember the discussions on the topic whether it would be better if the two arms of SCL – applications and law – went their separate ways.  We always resisted any talk about schism, and I am glad we did, because SCL has been much stronger as a united body.

My interest in IT applications was never concerned with promoting the interests of the big battalions.  They could always look after themselves, even if SCL provided a greatly valued forum in which the different protagonists could meet and chat.  My abiding interest was in seeing how applied IT could help the administration of justice in making legal services and judicial services more accessible to those with limited means, who were unable to pay for expensive law reports or afford the premiums demanded by barristers and solicitors as the price for accessing their inefficient working practices.

As we celebrate the first 40 years of SCL’s history – with four of its first five presidents still going strong– we have a lot to be thankful for.  It has not only been a Society in which like-minded men and women could meet to learn about, and talk about, complex issues of mutual interest.  It has been a creative force for good, and a very great deal was achieved by the gifted enthusiasts at its helm. 

Sir Henry Brooke was President of SCL from 1992 to 2001. He was a judge in the Court of Appeal for ten years before he retired in 2006: