Court IT: the young lawyers' view
A trainee litigation lawyer welcomes the recent rolling out of court wifi access, and looks forward to further IT developments against the findings of a related SYLA survey
As an aspiring litigation lawyer I had always looked forward to the day when I would put on that black solicitors’ gown and walk into the courtroom like the lawyers I’d watched for years. However, when I started my PEAT 1 I was asked to read a book which shockingly suggested that lawyers might stop wearing gowns and perhaps going into a court building altogether.
The suggestion that litigation as we know it might dramatically change seemed unimaginable. However, entering the profession as part of the generation no longer using landline phones and who get their news from their smartphone as opposed to newspapers or even TV, I admit that a few things did seem unnecessarily old fashioned. While I don’t quite consider myself to be part of what is being termed “the internet generation”, we are not far off having trainee solicitors whose first port of call for any query has always been Google and who can’t remember the fear when you were stranded and didn’t have any money for the payphone.
Courts and the SYLA survey
So what do young lawyers think about the use of technology in Scottish courts? The Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association has been looking into this over the last six months and keeping an eye on the interesting and exciting changes that we are seeing in courts across the country.
Just recently I did a double take in the Court of Session when I saw the screen above the walls of court displaying court business. Finally, I thought, what we’ve all been asking for. Don’t get me wrong, there is a charm to the traditions and grandeur at Parliament House that makes every visiting law student wonder “Could I be an advocate some day?” However, the walls of court are not part of it.
Then there’s the email recently circulated by the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service confirming that they were rolling out wifi access codes for practising solicitors. Over a third of young lawyers who completed our survey specifically suggested that the introduction of wifi would improve their local court. Whether it was to keep in communication, send and receive documents or look up rules or cases, access to the internet was deemed to be a necessity for the young court lawyer.
While the Simple Procedure Rules were rolled out in November, we still await the online portal. It might be that this is the most significant change in the courts’ use of technology. E-lodging of documents was another recommendation made by many of the young lawyers surveyed. Being able to start actions, submit productions and exchange witness lists in a few easy clicks was the suggestion of almost 50% of respondents.
Will legal firms respond?
The processing of court business online serves three purposes. The first is the ease of lodging documents. Being able to lodge productions easily at any court and knowing they have reached the sheriff clerk on the same day will help agents comply with timetables and court orders in an efficient manner. It may even reduce the need for motions to vary the court timetable to allow late lodging in certain circumstances. Then there’s the cost: if productions don’t require to be printed and posted there is an economic benefit to the solicitors involved, and ultimately the clients. And finally there is the environmental benefit. Mountains of paper are lodged in the form of productions every year for cases that settle before proof or trial. With offices increasingly turning to paperless file management and even the new pre-action protocol stipulating the use of email over letter, it seems like a sensible reduction in the amount of waste generated by litigation.
So it is clear that the courts themselves are making significant progress and embracing the use of technology. But how are firms using technology to improve their litigation practices? Well, almost all of the young lawyers surveyed admitted to using personal devices (such as phones, laptops and tablets) to work from home or while at court. Only 20% had been provided with such devices by their employers, while over half admitted having to use their own personal devices in court. With a mobile phone being as important as your gown, is this something that firms should be providing staff with? Whether it’s for time recording, calling the client or principal agent for instructions or sending updates on your proof back to the office, a mobile phone should be a staple of any litigation department.
Furthermore, many young lawyers feel they can type faster than they can write and would prefer to take court notes on a laptop rather than with pen and paper. With a laptop or tablet being a notepad, a file and a library all at once, many young lawyers would like to see them being more widely used, and accepted, in the courtroom.
It is clear that the legal sector is making progress. The courts in particular have taken feedback on board and are embracing technology. However, we still have quite a way to go. The first email was sent in 1971, yet we still cannot use it to lodge productions or witness lists. Cloud storage was first available in the 1980s but is only now being utilised between parties for file sharing.
Our English counterparts are perhaps leading the way. For almost four years it has been mandatory for English pre-litigation personal injury claims to be dealt with through a portal, where evidence and correspondence are exchanged between insurers and claimants' representatives. Their small claims equivalent uses an online claim form for simple debt recovery actions, which has certainly improved access to justice and reduced waste.
I for one will be very interested to see how the simple procedure portal operates and whether it will be extended to or adapted for other types of actions. In the meantime, the steps taken by the courts in recent months appear to be meeting the basic needs of today’s modern young lawyer, and this is a welcome improvement.
Ayla Iridag is a second year trainee with Clyde & Co (Scotland) LLP, and a committee member of the Scottish Young Lawyers' Association