Anyone with a taste for legal dramas or following courtroom sagas on the news will be familiar with the enduring image of a barrister striding into court with a bundle of papers under their arm.
But in 2016, and in the interests of cost-saving and efficiency, the criminal justice system’s love affair with paper is finally coming to an end in favour of digitisation. And it’s Leeds’s main court, which sees some 2,500 cases sent for trial each year, that’s at forefront of the paperless trend.
Since last summer. the vast majority of criminal cases going before Leeds Crown Court have had their associated paperwork put onto a specially developed digital system accessible via a ‘cloud’, a vast online storage service available to use via the internet.
The Digital Case System means lawyers and judges can easily access, edit or add to vital information about their cases from their laptops in the courtroom, or remotely between hearings, meaning they are more likely to be seen in a timely fashion.
Leeds and Southwark Crown Court in London, known for hosting high profile celebrity trials and complex fraud cases, were chosen as the pilot sites for the paperless court scheme.
And by the end of April, all but four Crown Courts across England and Wales are expected to go paperless. York Crown Court is among the stragglers because of delays installing WiFi in the Grade 1 listed Georgian building.
There are all sorts of problems with paper. Not just the expense of printing it, and the time for people copying it all, it was also very inefficient.His Honour Judge Peter Collier, Recorder of Leeds
According to Judge Peter Collier QC, the Recorder of Leeds, who has led the project in the city, the new system is a big improvement on the use of paper, which was “hopelessly inefficient” and meant around 35 hours a week on average were spent by court staff looking for specific files.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “I remember we used to use wheeled suitcases, you dragged them down the street from the car park into court and then got all the files out.
“In the big cases, you would have a file divider and you would be putting your Lever Arch files into those. Now you have got the laptop and you are free of all that paper, and it is fantastic.”
With resources in the criminal justice system thinly-stretched, the aim of the scheme is to shorten the length of criminal trials, because the process of sharing documents is now quicker.
It is also forecast to save money, by removing the need to have paper bundles and the cost of copying and transporting paperwork. Advocates and judges should also have more time to prepare for hearings as they can access material around the clock.
Judge Collier said: “There are all sorts of problems with paper. Not just the expense of printing it, and the time for people copying it all, it was also very inefficient.
“A number of years ago they decided to measure how much time was spent by the office staff looking for files. You wouldn’t believe it, it was 35 hours a week. Very often when they found the files they weren’t complete.
“It was all those sort of things that meant that those people who make the decisions and provide the money, to say it would be much better if this could all be in the modern age, digital.”
The software, called Caselines, was created by London-based firm Netmaster Solutions and has already been widely used in civil courts. It is said to be so user-friendly that anyone with enough technological savvy to shop on the website Amazon can use it.
According to officials behind the scheme, the application is secure and only those that have been ‘invited’ to view the case will have access to case material.
An internet security ‘ring of steel’ means information going to and from the cloud is encrypted, and everything that anyone does in the system is tracked, something said to make the scheme more secure than paper.
Philip Goldberg, who heads the criminal law department at Leeds firm Lester Morrill, said he supported the paperless scheme as it “saves me carrying large quantities of papers around”.
He said: “On the whole the project has been a success. Bearing in mind we are changing the way things have been done for literally centuries it has been a relatively smooth transition.
“Being involved in the pilot has assisted all local practitioners to get up to speed with the new technology and the software is simple to use. There are some minor irritations but nothing that we cannot overcome.”
As part of the scheme, wireless internet routers are being installed in all Magistrates and Crown Courts, with all but a small handful due to have the technology by the end of this month.
The changes are part of a wider effort to put the entire criminal justice system, including the documents used by police, probation services and the Crown Prosecution Service, on a common platform rather than using different, conflicting services.
David Jackson, managing director at Netmaster, said the decision to choose two busy courts, Leeds and Southwark, to pilot the scheme, was a brave one.
He said: “Sometimes when you are doing a pilot, the cautious approach is to choose small sites, somewhere well out of the way. But the Ministry of Justice said no, if we are going to find out if this works, we need to do it in two busy courts.”
When the scheme was introduced in Leeds last summer, solicitors nationwide were on strike as part of a dispute with the Government over cuts to legal aid fees.
Judge Collier said: “There was a little bit of, not resistance, but questioning about this was going to fit in with other agendas.
“Barristers took to it very quickly because for them, being mobile, moving from town to town, being in York in the morning, Leeds in the afternoon, the idea that he doesn’t have to go back to chambers to collect documents but simply opens up his laptop, clicks and there it is, the case in front of him.
“I remember as a barrister, sometimes you would have to get into your car at five o’clock at night, drive to some crossroads ten miles away, meet another barrister who was coming in the opposite direction, swap the briefs over, go home and begin your preparation.
“You no longer need to do that, all of that is gone, or even the need to go back to chambers to collect your own briefs, let alone someone else’s.
“It makes life much easier for the practitioners but for the judges as well. The more mobile barristers were very quick to take it up and saw all the advantages. And very quickly the solicitors did as well.”