2015: The Evolving Use of IT in the Law

Following my blog about BAILII I have received this message from the Senior Practice Manager at a large London set of chambers:

“I have to say I am enjoying your blog immensely. I know you were at the very centre of the technology explosion in the 80s so I am hoping that you might find the time to write on the use of IT in so far as it has evolved during your time in the law.”

I have got masses of material and memories on which I could draw.  I will start with an essay I wrote in 2002 called “Technology and the Judicial Process”.  It begins like this:

I came onto the law and technology scene in 1985. I had just spent two years away from legal London as Counsel to the Sizewell Inquiry, where I had seen the benefits which well-planned applications of modern technology could bring. Soon after I returned to my practice as a barrister, I was invited to help form the Bar’s first ever computer committee. Our first chairman was a silk who knew what computers could do from his experience as a director of a regional newspaper company.  One of the committee’s other members was a young barrister who worked for Rank Xerox. He told us of the advantages of the work station which brought electronically to his desk draft documents, letters and memoranda from his company’s outposts.

One of the committee’s early successes was a series of workshops run for barristers and barristers’ clerks by members of the Society for Computers and Law. The society had been formed in 1973, with Lord Justice Scarman as its first president. Twelve years later Lord Justice Neill had taken over as president. When I went to see him in his room in the Law Courts I remember he told me that he thought he had joined the movement far too early. Since 1973 the cause of technology and the law had gone backwards almost as often as it had gone forwards, particularly with one over-ambitious project. In 1985 the Bar’s resistance to computerised accounting systems was fuelled by over-zealous salesmanship by vendors who did not understand the idiosyncrasies of barristers’ charging systems. Fee notes were still sent out manually from barristers’ clerks’ rooms throughout the Temple and Lincoln’s Inn.

He said, however, that things were now going forward again…”

I will then consider what I can do without overloading the site with repetitions of what has been published before.  Of the 20 years I spent in trying to persuade the legal and political establishment that much greater investment in IT was essential if our justice system was not to be overloaded with paper, for only the first three of those I was a member of the Bar.  I then carried on the battle when I became a judge in 1988, ending up as the judge in charge of modernisation with a seat – quite unprecedented at that time – as a non-executive member of the Court Service Board which was trying to drive a major court modernisation programme forward.

Our main enemy was the Treasury, which persisted with its dogma that, whatever Magna Carta might say, justice in the civil and family courts was a commodity which the Government should sell at cost price to those (except the very poor) who wished – or were constrained – to buy it. It was content to stand by during all those years when this result could only be achieved by massive cross-subsidies -from the excessive fees charged to creditors who sought default judgments in the county courts to the excessive fees charged, until quite recently, for non-contentious probate business in the High Court.  As the paper mountains in the courts grew and grew, the judges, the Lord Chancellor, and his senior advisers all pointed out that the only sensible way forward was to invest in IT infrastructure and applications which would enable the justice system to save millions of pounds in due course. The uncompromising answer came back:

“The civil and family justice system must pay for itself. Don’t ask the taxpayer to pay for any part of your justice system, except to help the very poor.”

What a pity.

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