In the last article, I summarised the government?s drive to harness IT for recording and processing of police and prosecution work. The endgame is to go paperless with the defence receiving prosecution material in a digital format and the case conducted in a digitally equipped courtroom. To this end, those defence practitioners still around in 2015 will have contract terms with the Legal Aid Agency obliging them to have CJS "secure? email.
The initial response of the defence community was to seek the grant of free iPads to compensate for the government, in effect, passing onto them the cost of printing paper copies for defendants. But this reaction only addressed the issue of receipt of case "papers? and the interface with the Crown.
Obviously, laptops/tablets and IT have been used in court and police stations for some time, mainly for word processing and template infilling. For some in the defence community, their engagement through software suppliers is the provision of case management and accounts systems sitting on office/cloud based servers. They then use remote access to enter work on files. For others, it means setting up templates on devices so thatstandard letters can be produced. Then there are various ancillarytools to assist working with pre-existing digital content. The profession?s approach to digital working in part bears out the parable of the blind men and the elephant (John Godfrey Saxe?s poem about blind men touching an elephant: each one feels a different part, but only one part, and so they disagree about what an elephant is like).
So when my firm decided to look into the subject, we started by defining our ignorance. With a group of colleagues and a software house, we arrived at a working description of what we wished to achieve; but, before that, we had to describe our working environment so that the correct solution could be found.
One of the unique characteristics of criminal law working is that a large amount of it is mobile and non-office based: at police stations, courts and prisons as well as home. Furthermore, some of these venues (prisons) are offline and may remain so, while others (courts) will slowly go online.
Digital working vision
Bullivant Law already has computerised case management that produces merged letters, criminal procedure rules notices, briefs and defence statements (largely eliminating dictation) - all at the office or by remote access. We even have automated payments of police station overtime/external agents, thus freeing significant management and fee earner time.
But this is not enough. The digital vision encompasses work from start to finish, from police stations to the Crown Court. Working on the defence case via non-paper means using systems that integrate "front office? (case management, letters, doc preparation, communications, e-diary) and "back office? (billing, disbursements, time recording, overtime and external agents fees) to bring about significant efficiency in working habits, thereby assisting clients, as well as a significant release of time for practitioners and significant savings to counteract reductions in the funding of legal aid.
The dream is to be as efficient as the electricity meter reader: he does not have a tail of work to catch up on when he gets back to the office. All his work is "beamed? within minutes of reading the meter. We wanted to be as good as him.
Given the central fact that some work would always be offline, besides working on PCs and laptops, there was one further necessary solution: an app. These only work on tablets. They can auto-sync with the office as soon as you reach an online location. Tablets have the additional functionality of working through direct touch as well as keyboards. We devised a proprietary app which breaks down all criminal work into five constituent parts (or rather forms) into which all defence practitioners? work can be entered: (1) police station telephone advice; (2) police station attendance; (3) magistrates? court advocates; (4) litigators? preparation; (5) Crown Court advocates.
In October 2013, we did trials with the app and associated web forms with fee earners in Android and hope to roll it out to other staff in Apple and Windows 8 in November and December. We have already achieved the following with the Bullseye app:
- If one colleague provides advice on the telephone, or in person at a police station, then everyone in the firm can see the file on their tablets/laptops/PCs if they work on the case later; the resultant pdf file can be emailed from the tablet to an external agent if required.
- A client can make a digital signature (these are available throughout the app) on a prepared statement and it can be emailed to the officer in charge immediately.
- Lawyers do not have to write the client?s name/court names/ addresses more than once as the app "fetches? key data from previous attendances.
- Future dates in the case including judicial order deadlines areauto-fed into the office diary via the app?s syncing with our database.
- Data security is paramount: all data is secured/encrypted in storage and transmission as per the Information Commissioner?s Office?s requirements.
- All Legal Aid Agency reporting requirements eg court and claim codes are embedded in the app, enabling billing.
- From a client and an audit perspective, our lawyers will be producing high quality files due to embedded quality.
- No-one has to submit an overtime claim for attending police stations after hours as the app helps collate their monthly claims.
- The app has a pdf and an XML (extensible markup language) output and therefore it can work with pre-existingsoftware, thereby precluding otherwise large capital costs.
- We hope to save about £4,000-£5,000 per fee earner per year in savings on paper, consumables, feeearner time and admin support.
Wecannot realistically expect to eliminate paper overnight, but other efficiency gains will make it all worthwhile.
- Avtar Bhatoa Bullivant Law