Local governments deliver diverse legal services on which citizens depend. They are also under increasing pressure from growing case demand and diminishing budgets as a result of austerity. This has shifted the priorities of decision makers and resulted in the recent £1.2bn modernisation programme of the courts, who concluded that cost-effective, dependable technology is central to outstanding local governance.
Local courts are just some of the many courts that are undertaking this modernisation. Until now, family courts have often been left behind in the drive to digital working. Surrey Council is now one of nine councils to be undergoing a digital transformation, equipping judges, lawyers and clients alike with access to a computerised evidence and presentation system. The same software was successfully implemented in the UK Crown courts and paid for entirely out of the savings made from eliminating paper.
Given one key aspect of local governance is the protection of vulnerable citizens, any innovation must be designed and implemented to safeguard those who need it most. This drive keeps judges at the forefront of modernising the justice system, as the technologies give judges the ability to build an efficient courtroom that inspires public confidence and upholds the rule of law.
If frozen budgets and increasing workload pressures are behind this digital drive, it could also be true that the UK courts are fast becoming some of the most technologically advanced in the world.
Building these efficient courtrooms has been challenging. Paper has become increasingly burdensome: it’s expensive throughout its life cycle but has an unsustainable, ever-growing cost that is adding up for local governments. While the initial purchase price of a piece of paper is well below 1p, once other factors are taken into consideration such as storage and transport, it can end up costing as much as 25p per page. When court room bundles regularly contain thousands of pages, digitising the process of bundling quickly became the priority.
Courts signing up are therefore undergoing a full digitisation of the trial process to a single solution software in which to build and present cases. This requires a standard scalable solution that is intuitive, easy to use and meets the needs of the multiple users who can all access the system. It means cases can be prepared anywhere and at any time, without the troubles associated with paper because only access to a screen is required. By implementing a single solution that removes the need for photocopiers, filing cabinets and expensive on-site servers, legal practices can gain back control of their resources and costs, redirecting them where they are needed most.
With usability in mind, the systems have been designed to resemble a manual bundle as much as possible, but in a searchable and consistent form. All parties can then also rest assured they are referring to the same page during a trial, something not always possible when each person is handling ten separate lever arch files. It grants fast access to all the case data available which is stored in the same place to annotate and then present on your devices, cutting down the time trials will take and allowing more time to be focused on the important issues. With remote working, judges can also take home the cases on which they wish to spend more time, allowing much more flexibility in their approach.
Local governments must also comply with strict data protection laws to avoid unintentional disclosure that has significant human and financial costs. Security is often one reason the legal sector must be more conservative in its approach to innovation, given how important trust is in the system. It has therefore been at the centre of the systems being introduced to ensure secure, dependable justice. This means full disclosure and a full audit trail of action combined with a secure cloud-based platform for the sharing of sensitive data. It is essential in supporting the systems that provide protection for potentially life-changing data and evidence.
However, given the value of evidence that the courts hold and the amount of time they hold it for, certain guarantees are always desired. CaseLines has recently applied for a patent to use blockchain in the storage of digital evidence, which on the surface may appear an unlikely alliance, but one that makes perfect sense after a closer look.
The unique way Blockchain collects and handles data stores each transaction to ensure that once a piece of evidence is entered into the system, there can be no possibility of records being altered or falsified. This eliminates any possibility that evidential material submitted to court can be repudiated as it is not possible to photo-shop a picture or splice a video. In this way, it becomes an incorruptible digital ledger – giving the courts the cast-iron assurance they need to pursue digital innovation.
With security guaranteed, the global legal sector can then continue to confidently pursue and embrace the new digital age with these innovations at every level of the UK legal system.
Paul Sachs is a leading expert in the field of legal technology, as well as the founder and CTO of digital evidence management platform CaseLines.
CaseLines is the leading global provider of software as a service for the electronic preparation and presentation of evidence, legal bundles, documentary and video evidence. The system is now in current daily use in 78 crown courts, including the Supreme Court, the UK Crown prosecution service and now the family courts.