Digitisation of the courts—bad news for advocates?

Digitisation of the courts—bad news for advocates?

In 2015, the government embarked on a review of the courts in England and Wales. In an ambitious report released in December of the same year, Justice Briggs laid out a broad spectrum of reforms designed to modernise the judicial system. The changes as laid out in the report have demanded (and continue to demand) significant behavioural change from practitioners that if implemented successfully will ‘completely transform the courts’ and provide the modernisation the British courts so desperately require. While so much has already been accomplished, Lord Briggs—senior judge and advocate for the change—recognised that this level of change will require imagination and: ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’ alongside a braveness that is ready to navigate the ‘contours of a new paperless world for which there are few if any precedents which can be visited or studied’.

As part of these reforms, over the past four years the UK justice system has undergone rapid digitisation. While the ramifications for practitioners is significant; primarily, these reforms have been designed to refocus the attentions of the judicial system to reflect the demands of its users, putting the citizen at its heart. In an article published by the CGI, they explained: ‘Digitisation provides the opportunity to re-build the processes of the justice system around the citizen. Pilot initiatives such as the digital case file and online plea submissions have begun to prove the concept in practice, showing how digitisation can increase access to justice while reducing costs, streamlining processes and improving quality.’ This change hasn’t been without its challenges, however; teething problems with digital tools have caused chaos for practitioners and stalled trials. In this article, we discuss the changing landscape of the courtroom and whether digitisation should be a cause for concern for advocates or whether it will successfully ease the burden on the UK judicial system.

While digitisation was hailed as the premier reform to cut costs for the judiciary, the move has proved expensive in the short term. In an article published by The Register it was reported that the PAC is not hopeful that the cost savings will come to fruition: ‘We have little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme to bring the court system into the modern age’ and accused HMCTS of failing to ‘articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like, which limits stakeholders' ability to plan for, and influence the changes’.

With such substantial practical and cultural change still on the horizon, it should be of little surprise that things have gotten off to a shaky start. An entrenched profession, these reforms tackle head on practices that have shaped and defined the judicial system. Although digitisation is still largely unchartered water for many within the profession, greater digitisation could cure work duplication and ease the cost burden of a profession which is having its resources cut by the day. As Liz Crowhurst, Policy Officer of The Police Foundation attests: ‘at a time when justice agencies are under pressure to reduce costs, even as the complexity of cases increases, digitisation offers significant opportunities to radically improve services while increasing cost-efficiency and transparency. This, in turn, will deliver improved outcomes for victims, witnesses, defendants and offenders.’

Indeed, digitisation offers both users and practitioners more sophisticated ways of working, collaborating and navigating increasingly complex caseloads. Though new technologies offer improvements across myriad areas, one place where the judicial system is beginning to witness benefit is through the use of automated communication. Digitisation enables service users to be as proactive as they wish in regards to their case, and online citizen portals will enable users to tailor their communications to their user base. Improving ease of use will enable those who are more vulnerable to take greater control over how they are contacted, take account of personal preference and, in criminal cases, take account of the crime they have experienced. Fundamentally, greater digitisation provides greater convenience and ease of access.

Technology’s impact on ease of use should not be underestimated- not least for practitioners. While advocates and support staff are often the point of contact for client queries, technology would enable users to access a single portal which manages all their data surrounding the case. Furthermore, utilising a single digital portal will enable different legal functions to work in concert with each other to provide a more joined up service to users. This will eliminate data duplication between different organisations and prevent workflow repetition.

Changes to the courts will not only manifest themselves in digital self-serve platforms; the practice of advocacy is on the move. Despite mixed feelings in the profession, initiatives to digitalise the Courts and Tribunals Service continue apace. While the process has undoubtedly had its issues, progress continues: Wi-Fi reaches court rooms, evidence is digitalised and courts shift to electronic filing. Under the mantra of ‘digital by default’ more and more paper work will be eliminated, and electronic bundles will replace paper. Inevitably, practitioners will need to adapt work streams to stay abreast of reforms and remain current. To aid practitioners in the transition, LexisNexis has developed a suite of tools, designed to aid advocates manage the digitisation process and stay abreast of key changes. Click here to find out more.

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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.