The legal sector is famous for its fondness of paper. For centuries court cases have been conducted with reference to extensive bundles of documents – often brought into court in suitcases – detailing every aspect of the case. However, the drive for digital transformation is now reaching the courtroom thanks to the government-driven £1bn HMCTS reform programme aimed at giving citizens a faster, fairer justice system. The replacement of those cumbersome paper bundles with electronic bundles is set to streamline court proceedings, vastly improve security and save time and money.
This is welcome news for local authorities, for whom petitions to the family court for the protection of vulnerable children represent significant workload and cost. Family cases have a target for completion of less than 26 weeks, therefore anything that can streamline such a complex and sensitive process is worth investment. However, as with any digital transformation project, careful planning is required to ensure goals are met and benefits maximised. As they strive to meet the Government’s targets for digitisation here are four key areas that I advise local authorities to consider when making the transition to e-bundles.
Balancing cost and efficiency savings
On average each local authority petition family courts 200 times each year. For each petition, highly sensitive case bundles consisting of up to 350 A4 pages are printed, duplicated, collated and couriered to the parties involved. This involves significant costs at all stages, from the ink, paper and printers used, to the administrative time needed to assemble the documents and the cost of a secure courier service. On top of this, as the case progresses, the entire bundle must be continually updated for all parties, involving further time and cost.
The case for a digital alternative is compelling. In fact, HMCTS estimates local authorities spend on average £1282.65 and 38.2 hours preparing each bundle, meaning digitisation could eliminate annual costs of around £256,530 and free up 8019 hours of administrative time.
Still, there are costs associated with moving to e-bundles and, while they won’t exceed the potential savings, they should be managed appropriately so that the solution represents the best value for public money.
Local authorities should factor in the costs of purchasing and rolling out suitable document production and pagination software, as well as secure sharing technology. The detail of the software licensing model needs close attention. If sharing software requires all parties to have a licence, costs can quickly escalate when each case can involve six or more people – a potential 1200 licences required. If the rollout involves a hardware element – perhaps providing tablets for courtroom use - make sure that the chosen software is device agnostic, so that you can get maximum use from it. Consider cloud-based software-as-a-service solutions as these are the most flexible and scalable when it comes to future proofing your investment. It’s also important to interrogate suppliers around their upgrade cycle – will future upgrades be included in your licence? What is the product roadmap?
Data protection and access control
Hard copy court bundles are intrinsically insecure. They’re at risk of accidental loss, theft and unauthorised access. When you consider the immensely confidential and sensitive nature of family court documents and the potential harm to vulnerable children and families if they’re compromised, it’s clear security must be a primary concern.
This is just as true of electronic court documents. Fortunately, many digital systems offer far greater security and access control, plus the facility to log and audit user activity. Local authorities need to create an environment that has multiple levels of encryption, including at folder and file level. This means that, even if the solution is hacked, further security levels render the data inaccessible.
Third parties such as lawyers and social workers will need secure, controlled access to e-bundles. Security policies and procedures must be carefully created so only identified recipients can access files. The ability to amend, download and share files should be restricted to authorised personnel and the system should include a detailed audit facility that logs actions so that compliance with data handling and protection policies can be clearly demonstrated.
Data archiving and destruction
The work isn’t over once the judge has made their decision. There’s still the matter of what happens to all that confidential information once the case is closed. A clear benefit of e-bundles is the physical space they free up in offices and storage facilities. As one local authority puts it: “floor space is expensive and best used to accommodate staff.” Nevertheless, thought must still be given to how e-bundles will be stored and managed once cases are completed. An electronic solution should offer the facility to automatically expire user access to the e-bundle once a mandated period has expired, with the final iteration being securely stored in case it’s needed. Storage should incorporate suitable levels of encryption for data at rest.
User adoption – achieving digital transformation
Despite the cost and time-saving benefits that an e-bundle solution delivers there is still the issue of change management to consider and budget should be allocated for familiarisation and training for key users to ensure that the transition is smooth, and the new system embraced by all parties. This is where choosing a user-centric, logical platform that supports all stages of the legal process pays dividends. Users should be able to easily prepare, paginate and securely circulate documents and subsequent revisions from a single platform. Professionals should be able to make the same private annotations they would have made on hard copy documents to assist them in the courtroom. Finally, the process of access control, revocation and archiving should be straightforward. Anything short of this will lead to user resistance and slow the rate of adoption.
The benefits for local authorities of adopting e-bundles are clear. With careful consideration of technology features, licensing, security and storage processes, and by selecting a user-centric system, they can ensure that the vital work of child protection grows more streamlined, cost-effective and secure.
At Egress we work closely with many local authorities to provide this secure environment. Invicta Law is one such example. Representing the largest county in the UK, Invicta Law, a new ABS (a regulated organisation which provides legal services) established from Kent County Council’s former in-house legal team, is committed to delivering high-quality services to its clients. A number of these services relate to the wellbeing of children, including safeguarding welfare.
Invicta Law selected Egress Secure Workspace because it offered comprehensive levels of encryption, control and auditing to ensure that sensitive data is always protected.
Within Secure Workspace users create a secure zone for each individual court case, with the ebundle uploaded into this encrypted environment. Users are then given permission to access zones and documents relevant to them, preventing a data breach caused by unauthorised access or paper copies being lost or stolen. Whenever changes are made to the bundle during the court process, a new PDF version can be easily uploaded to the zone and users immediately notified via email.
We are proud to be working with organisations like Invicta Law to help them to electronically deliver ebundles to family courts. HMCTS has shown that local authorities can make significant cost and efficiency savings by digitising court bundles – however, given the sensitivity of the material involved, it is crucial that encrypting and controlling this data is a primary objective for law firms and in-house teams looking for an e-bundle solution. We therefore see it as a key priority to help our customers achieve these costs and efficiency benefits, whilst also ensuring they can protect some of the country’s most vulnerable children from harm.
Tony Pepper, CEO, Egress Software Technologies.