By Doug Hargrove, managing director of legal at Advanced
The legal system has now introduced a number of emergency measures to keep the courts operational during the pandemic. It’s a smart move, and in fact is the only sensible option, if it is to tackle the worrying backlog of around 54,000 cases waiting to be brought to court. However, in order to really address the problem and start reducing the waiting list, the profession will need to make significant changes to the way it embraces and uses technology.
The UK government’s measures include installing Plexiglass in courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms. Nightingale courts have also been established across England and Wales, in Portakabin units and within town halls, theatres, a hotel, a cathedral, university and inside the Ministry of Justice’s own London headquarters. This drive to ensure that everyone can operate safely and effectively when they have to be present in court has been vital to getting the judicial system up and running again. It’s been especially important as some existing premises, including crown courts in Oxford and Norwich faced closures because of Covid-19 outbreaks.
Improvements to video technology to facilitate remote proceedings, wherever possible or practical, are already helping them go more smoothly and will continue to facilitate the continuation of business as usual within the courts. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, told the service that it is important to keep footfall in the courts to a minimum, advising judges that individuals should only be required to appear physically in the court room when absolutely necessary in the interests of justice.
Virtual hearings are not without challenges though. A recent study by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) found that professionals and family members agreed it was more difficult to deal sensitively and with empathy when interacting via technology and clients can end up feeling less adequately supported by their legal advocate. Technical issues such as connectivity and audio feedback have also been highlighted as barriers to an effective hearing. It points to a need for the legal profession to work together, and make further investments if they are to keep the system running while ensuring fairness and justice at all times.
By taking a more digital approach to case management, courts will have faster access to information and evidence that could in fact help speed up many hearings. This would also help to mitigate some of the other issues with technology that are currently being experienced. Without the right systems in place, we could face an administrative nightmare in which documents and files are out of date, damaged, corrupt or even lost. It’s far quicker and more reliable to create and share digital documents using specialised software than with traditional applications.
Everyone who has access to a bundle receives automatic edits and amends and there is no chance someone might be left with an outdated copy. It’s easy to highlight, index and bookmark in digital documents and with applications that use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to allow text searchability, saving time in trying to locate certain information under pressure.
What’s more, it ensures the security and portability of documents safely in these times when many of the parties involved are working from various addresses – including working from home – rather than from central offices. This is essential when we consider the multiple Nightingale courts now in operation. Security for confidential and personal data is of course the number one concern and failure to protect documents can leave a firm exposed to reputational and financial damage. Unlike paper bundles, digital documents are stored on highly secure servers using cloud technology that helps ensure compliance to data protection regulations.
However, technology alone will not keep the wheels of justice turning. The legal profession as a whole has to learn to adapt and embrace new ways of working in order to make these measures truly successful and a template for more efficient working in the future. This will incur additional burden and costs, both in recruiting and training new staff to take on some of the heavy lifting. Where recruiting and training isn’t a viable option, engaging a document production specialist company may offer a more cost-effective solution.
For a profession steeped in tradition and conventional practice, the Covid-19 pandemic might be just what our legal system needs to help drive a more efficient, streamlined, secure and compliant service that is resilient and ready for the future.
Doug Hargrove joined Advanced in 2013 and has over 25 years of senior management experience in software companies in the UK and globally.