Paperless Lawyers, Paperless Courts

A temptation for lawyers is to use technology to mirror paper-based practices. Technology merely means that the screen becomes the functional equivalent of paper and underlying behaviours relating to information do not change. What should make the utilisation of technology different is that underlying the functional equivalent of a paper based file are all the tools and advantages that digital technologies can bring such as indexing searching on the fly annotating and so on.

Andrew Downie, a lawyer in Victoria, Australia, in February of 2014, blogged on the creation of an electronic brief – ahandy “how to” guide focusing particularly upon methods of converting documents and organising them using a computer system.

But electronic case files are not the exclusive preserve of counsel. In New Zealand there are several practice notes on the utilisation of electronic bundles of documents in court.  The Senior Courts Civil Electronic Document Protocol addresses the use of electronic documents in the Higher Courts in New Zealand. The Electronic Document Practice Note 2017 is intended to encourage and facilitate the use of electronic documents for civil cases in the Court of Appeal. The 2016 Practice Note “The Use of Electronic and Common Bundles and Electronic Casebooks in the High Court” sets out guidance about when an order should be made for a common bundle and/or casebook to be filed electronically in the High Court and the default directions that apply. It is to be read and interpreted consistently with the Senior Courts Civil Electronic Protocol.

The concept of functional equivalence is to the fore and it seems to me that one of the purposes of the practice note and the move towards electronic bundles is to save space and paper. This is consistent with the imitative approach adopted in the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act 2016 (NZ) about which I have blogged here.

What the practice notes do is provide an electronic platform for the assembly of bundles of documents but by doing so it also enables counsel to utilise technology to enhance case presentation and argument.  None of this of course is specified in the practice notes which are designed to encourage and facilitate the use of electronic bundles the various Courts.  The fact of the matter is, however, that by virtue of the advantages bought by the technology, counsel may be creative in the way in which the electronic bundle is utilised.  One of the requirements of the electronic bundle is that all documents be scanned into OCR format.  One would think that it would be unnecessary to have such a requirement, and that rendering pdf documents searchable would almost go without saying but regrettably it needs to be emphasised.  This effectively means that the information in the document may be subject to search and manipulation in a way that would not be possible in mere image format.

The practice notes make it clear that electronic bundles will not be used in every case.  They will only be used in document intensive cases where the common bundle would be likely to exceed a certain number of pages.

In “building” in electronic bundle documents must be contained in electronic folders equivalent to the physical volumes of hard copy bundles and within those folders each separate document must be a multipage pdf document.  Each folder must be named with an appropriate description and if there is more than one volume of a particular electronic bundle the folder for that type of bundle will include subfolders for each volume.  The rules also provide for electronic bundles in document intensive criminal cases.

One of the difficulties in using electronic bundles effectively lies in the fact that the majority of advocates have been bought up in the paper based environment and find it uncomfortable or difficult to make the shift into the digital paradigm with the changes in thinking that such requires.  The concept of functional equivalence gets in the way.  One uses technology merely to mirror what one would normally do with paper rather than utilise the technology to its fullest capacity.  Often software packages will themselves create difficulties.  Some software packages make it almost impossible to move from page to page without entering a code or a key.  Other software packages allow for the utilisation of barcodes whereby documents could be selected and projected using a barcode scanner but the simple fact of the matter is that counsel don’t utilise that aspect of the technology which would save considerable time and effort in moving through document intensive cases.

The various electronic document protocols effectively replace the lever arch paper folder with a USB stick or other form of storage medium. Lawyers and judges maintain an informational distance as a result. Each participant has to locate the “document” the subject of the discussion on his or her own device. A centrally located document bundle to which every participant has access and which can be displayed in Court would expedite matters. Such a tool is available in the form of Caselines which is effectively a digital court platform.

Caselines does not require software or infrastructure. It is a cloud based solution. To connect to a Caselines bundle for a trial or hearing all that is needed is a wireless connection at the Court.

Caselines bundles may be created by the parties or by the Court. Participants in a case have access to the bundle with varying levels of credentials. There are a number of different types of functionality including the ability to make notes, mark up and, importantly, to allow counsel who is referring to a document, image, video or other piece of digital material to make that available to all the participants in the case simultaneously. This means that everyone is on the same page, literally. Caselines is now used throughout the Crown Courts in England and Wales for criminal trials. Digital is the default position. Paper is no longer used

The Digital Paradigm allows lawyers to devise their own means of employing electronic technologies in the practice of law and the Courts judges in the management and presentation of cases.  What will be interesting to see is how courts and judges will respond.

But to make that leap it is necessary to examine some fundamental premises and reasons for why it is that we conduct cases in the way that we do. I have written elsewhere that the practice of law is really an exercise in information exchange, be it by way of receiving instructions from the client, processing those, seeking an information flow from research and communicating the results of that to the client by way of advice, or by way of a case in court where information flows come from witnesses whose information is assessed for relevance and reliability and which in turn inform the decision-maker’s decision which is them communicated to the parties and often to a wider audience by means of digital publication systems or by reporting in the law reports.

In court the information flows were oral exchanges. Indeed, written pleadings were not a part of court procedure until the reign of Edward IV, and most of the cases noted in the Year Books dealt with the technicalities of pleading rather than reports of decisions on substantive points of law. The first reports that revolutionised the way in which cases were recorded were those of Edmund Plowden, first printed in 1571. But the way that cases were presented in court was largely an oral process with witnesses orally stating what they saw or did and the lawyers making their points by oral rather than written argument. Or at least that was the case in the Common Law courts. Prerogative courts such as Star Chamber and the Courts of Chancery used the written record more extensively, albeit a handwritten one.

(For a full description of Star Chamber procedures see Thomas G. Barnes “Due Process and Slow Process in the Late Elizabethan – Early Stuart Star Chamber” (1962) 6 American Jnl of Legal History 221)

But despite the apparent written procedures adopted by Star Chamber and the Chancery Courts, much of the information exchange remained an oral..

The oral nature of information exchange in court over the centuries requires the physical presence of the “players” in the one place – the Courtroom. Indeed it has not been until comparatively recently – and by that I mean since I was admitted to the Bar in 1970 – that judges have countenanced and encouraged the provision of arguments in writing. These may range from the massive briefs that characterise written argument in the United States to the much smaller outline style  “skeleton arguments” in England. Indeed in some appellate jurisdictions – again predominantly in the United States – oral argument is time limited, demonstrating a declining emphasis upon oral argument in favour of documentary material. Yet despite the brevity of oral argument, physical presence is still required.

Another Form of “Presence”

Technology is changing this and there is a declining emphasis on actual physical presence following upon the introduction in New Zealand of the Courts Remote Participation Act 2010 which allows for “presence” of a participant by way of audio-visual link.(AVL) In the majority of cases in the District Court the participant “attending” by way of AVL will be a  defendant who is in custody. I haven’t yet come across the case where counsel has sought to be present by way of AVL and perhaps the custodial remand focus of the technology deployed in New Zealand Courts is responsible for that, although there is nothing in the legislation which excludes the use of Skype or Facetime. I imagine that all that is required for a lawyer and a Judge to break the ice.

The issue of physical presence is one part of the expanded use of technology in case presentation. At the moment document management technology is used in document intensive cases where scanned copies of documents are assembled and presented on screens by means of software tools. I interpolate to express wry amusement that documents are scanned into these programmes rather than using software tools which allow “document” assembly of digital documents in native file format, but perhaps that is yet to come. That is fine as far as it goes.

What about expanding the scope of the hearing so that by using “presence” technology such as AVL – or perhaps, in the future, holography –  counsel may run the case remotely. Where there is a need for text based information to be presented (what we call “documents”, retaining our paper based language despite attempts by legislators to include any information however recorded as fulfilling the definition of a “document” but why retain the use of a word which conceptually is associated with hard copy media?) that can be communicated to the court by electronic means. Witnesses can be present by AVL links. The range of information that is communicable or admissible to inform the Court’s decision could include multimedia, 3D imaging, maps or satellite shots from Google Earth or Street View. All the clumsy time consuming methods currently employed for evidence presentation could be significantly more efficient without compromising information flows or the ability of fact finders or law deciders to reach a conclusion.

Our “presence based” focus has its roots in rituals which, with modern communications technologies, can no longer be justified.

These ideas may seem to be radical – perhaps revolutionary – but the reality of the fact is that we are and will continue to be for some time in the midst of an information technology driven by continuous disruptive change. It is incumbent upon lawyers, judges and those involved in the information exchange process that underlies the activities of all lawyers to maximise and deploy these new technologies.


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