Andrea Beech asks what impact digitisation of the courts will have on law firms
In the Autumn Statement last month, an increased focus on digital and technology was a common thread across all departments, from a £450m investment for the Government Digital Service to a £1bn investment in a 4G communications network for the emergency services.
As part of this huge planned £1.8bn investment in digital, over £700 million has been allocated to fully digitise the justice system in the UK. This removes the need for the current paper-based system and will ultimately generate taxpayer savings of approximately £200m a year from 2020 through a reduction in basic costs.
It is said a fully-digitised justice system will remove the requirement for over 500,000 pre-trial hearings in the criminal courts, and also significantly reduce court hearing times and the amount of time spent on basic administrative functions, all of which will have a positive effect on law firms operating in the UK.
One of the most obvious benefits here are the cost savings, not only for the taxpayer, but for law firms as well. In areas such as the transportation of files and court bundles between the courtrooms and law firms, costs will be eliminated, along with the need to fund physical off-site storage for paper documents. The level of insurance and security required to prevent physical storage from being damaged by fire, damp or flooding will also naturally lessen.
A new digitised system will result in a stronger audit trail, allowing all files to be traced back to their original source and help prevent holes in any evidence being given. In order for this to be fully effective, it is important to bear in mind that measures such as true version control and document life-cycle management will need to be implemented. This will allow law firms to track the journey of a document throughout the firm – who checked the document out, when did it happen, and were any changes made?
The simplification of document processes will allow time-consuming, often duplicative tasks to be reduced or even eliminated in certain cases. Automated processes will also require the involvement of fewer people, helping to protect the security of the document by ensuring that access is available only for those who actually require it. This increased efficiency will mean that less time and expense is spent on basic administrative tasks, helping to protect those ever-eroding margins.
In this competitive, saturated market, firms should already be looking at how to improve their operations. But for those firms which have turned a blind eye to the changes up to this point, the digital investment by the government will result in a more focused approach to digitisation.
Points to consider
Earlier this year, we saw the Holborn fire in London close the Royal Courts of Justice for 36 hours and the Legal Services Board for several days, since neither had a disaster recovery plan in place. Despite a reduction in physical storage, law firms will still need to implement a disaster recovery and business continuity plan to allow activity to continue as usual in the event of a power outage, fire, flood etc.
Obviously each individual law firm will be responsible for the backup of its own files and data in the new digital world, but what happens once the files have been transferred to the courts for a hearing or trial? The government and the justice system as a whole must guarantee that the security of this data will be maintained outside the confines of a law firm. With little detail from the government with regards to planning and implementing this digitised system, law firms cannot yet be certain how data will remain secure once it is released for third-party viewing.
A question to consider is whether law firms themselves are ready for this digital change, not just the courtrooms. Unless all lawyers within a firm are fully competent at using digital technology, digitisation will become a security risk, and documents could be shared with the wrong people or places due to ignorance of the correct processes. It is therefore imperative that when this investment is finalised, all individuals are fully trained as to the nuances of the new system.
At the moment, it is not entirely clear how the courts will be digitised, which makes it very difficult for firms to prepare for these changes. However, what is clear is that a paperless office is no longer a vision of the future; it is happening now. The government's willingness to embrace this level of innovation is a positive step, and further suggests that law firms must be willing to embrace technology and seek expert guidance to remain secure, compete and thrive in this new digital age.
Andrea Beech is a Business Solutions Consultant at the business and technical consultancy QuoStar