Edoc prepared by Stephen Twist
Paper-free by the end of 2012? ‘Paper-use’ practices are costly – intensive of resources for production, management, storage, print and copy hardware, production cost, delivery cost, and environmental damage.
The benefits for clients:
Showing that you are at the cutting edge of technological developments – innovative, attentive to service commitment and are operating environmentally sound practice.
The benefits for you:
Competitive advantage, significant reduction in costs – DX, post, brief administration time, travel costs; personal convenience such as collecting and transporting papers, and electronic searching of documents.
You will have the capacity prepare and distribute all documents in ‘Word’ format or PDF files. Skeleton arguments, draft orders and case summaries can be integrated with the court’s ‘E’ initiative.
I have conducted three pilots where all of the papers were received electronically: one private law child case and two family finance cases: involving two solicitors.
- Solicitors prepared and sent instructions electronically as an ‘attached file’.
- Other documents required were either sourced electronically (such as CAFCASS/ Guardian/ S.7 reports/ Form E/ questionnaires and replies/ valuations/ position statements/ transcripts); or scanned (such as party correspondence/ offers/ LA contact sheets/ medical or psychological reports/ case notes/ education reports). These were then attached within the file.
- Documents drafted by counsel were sent direct to the solicitor with a copy to counsel’s clerk for billing, or emailed to the Family Team clerks to be forwarded by email. Documents from counsel to the court were emailed via the clerks for convenience and accounting purposes.
- Documents were digitally signed with an electronic template under the EU Electronic Signatures Directive and section 7 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.
Feedback from solicitor
The solicitors reported:
- significant reduction in preparation time by support staff: scanning is as simple as photocopying and only needs to be done once before the document is archived or shredded;
- savings on 7 year storage costs; only electronic copies are retained;
- simple ‘receipting’ of delivered instructions: knowing when papers were received and/or opened by counsel;
- quicker communication with counsel;
- faster response time in receiving documents from counsel;
- easier up-dating of counsel with latest indices;
- dispensing with problem of ‘returned papers’ and their storage at conclusion of case;
- easier case progress tracking.
Problems arising in pilot
These were remarkably few for a new initiative. Counsel was more time-accountable: solicitors emailed the files direct with a Ctrl+r (reply to sender) so they knew when instructions were accessed. Counsel had to become technically sharper, using new applications. All documents had to be accessed from screen, although with e-tabs and touch-screen highlights this was not an issue. The judges in the pilot cases did not avail themselves of electronic access, but it is hoped that in future pilots this will be the case.
Benefits to counsel arising in pilot
- Not having to arrange to collect case papers from chambers/ other counsel.
- Getting only what counsel needed, rather than everything just because it was in the file.
- Not to have to transport ring files.
- Settling orders on screen and emailing them from iPad or android to parties, solicitors and the court.
- In one case outside the pilot, eight lever arch files of ‘hearing transcripts’ were scanned to e-file for electronic searching.
- Develop safe systems whereby solicitors can email instructions to the appropriate department clerk who will then electronically receipt to the solicitor and forward instructions to counsel.
- Ensure in local authority-led cases, that all parties receive the latest updated e-file and document index.
- You will be under a duty to acknowledge receipt of instructions; the acknowledgment will be saved within the case file held by your clerks.
- Where instructions or cases are returned, members will be under a duty to do this via your department clerk who will ensure forward transmission by email (to maintain an audit trail).
- Documents prepared by members and sent to solicitors direct should be ‘cc’ to the department clerk for the purpose of billing.
- Members should ensure that they are applying appropriate Data Protection as data processors.
Advertising the initiative
As systems are developed, you will need an ‘electronic instruction’ entry on your web site setting out the systems, safeguards and benefits of electronic instruction.
Solicitors, local authority representatives, guardians and expert witnesses would be notified of the service and invited to attend an information evening at which the development of paper-free practice can be shared.