The new Supreme Court is the UK’s most technologically advanced court.
One remarkable innovation is that, in each of the three courtrooms, there are four fixed cameras. These record all proceedings for display on large monitors in the exhibition area. Although the sittings of the Court are not yet made available on the Web or on television, there is a protocol in place with broadcasters to provide materials for news and documentaries. In sensitive cases, there are procedures to safeguard the anonymity of those involved. These filming arrangements are unique in the courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where cameras have been forbidden in the past.
The three courts are also equipped with document display systems. Elegant, black, flat, high-resolution monitors sit before all Justices. When barristers argue their cases, the precise pages under discussion appear instantaneously on the screens. The Justices do not need to search for paper-based folders and documents. This technology alone can cut hearing times by around one quarter.
Justices can also bring laptops into court. On these, they can highlight text within their own electronic copies of the case materials, add comments, and copy and paste relevant words. Later, these annotations and extracts can be gathered together as searchable collections of notes. The Justices can also roam around the documents, jumping from one to another using hyperlinks. These features are enabled by another innovation – electronic filing (e-filing). Unless permission is given, all documents and bundles submitted to the court must be sent both in electronic form and as conventional paper-based files. Compulsory e-filing of this kind has long been an aspiration of court technologists. E-filing is conducted by email or by the delivery of a memory stick to the Registry of the Court. The core volume of documents must be submitted as a single, bookmarked PDF document. For each case, this gives the Justices a convenient electronic document bundle that behaves like a convenient mini-website.
Another advantage of e-filing is that the documents feed easily into the Court’s case management systems. These are the back office facilities that support the everyday tasks of document filing, case progression and listing. The system, in turn, provides officials and Justices with fully electronic virtual case files.
Meanwhile, any web user can determine the status of cases before the Court. Details are fed from the case management system onto the Court’s website (www.supremecourt.gov.uk). Citizens can view summary information, while practitioners can peruse in greater detail.
Very few courts in the world have this combination of recording, document display, e-filing and case management. Of course, the job of introducing the technology was easier than usual because a high-tech court was envisaged from the outset and so the systems could be designed as an integral part of the legal and business processes.
The Ministry of Justice and various IT suppliers developed the systems, while an IT user group oversaw the entire project. This was chaired by Lord Saville, and comprised Lord Neuberger, Jenny Rowe (the Court’s Chief Executive), two legal technologists, and various systems specialists and officials from the Ministry of Justice.
Most of the technologies in the Court have already been proven in Lord Saville’s Bloody Sunday Inquiry. His experience informed the design of the systems, as did interviews with each prospective Justice. These were conducted by legal technologist, Matthew di Rienzo. He has worked on judicial technology for many years and so was familiar with the likely needs of what was surely the most formidable set of users ever to be invited to specify their requirements. Unsurprisingly, there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for IT amongst the initial bench of Justices. Most, though, are solid believers. One or two are perhaps agnostic. But there are pockets of evangelism too.
One challenge for the user group was to try to future-proof the technology – to specify systems that accommodate the varying needs of current Justices and yet anticipate the requirements of future Justices who are likely to be more demanding of IT. In practice, this means that some of today’s facilities may not be fully embraced for some years. But, in the future, these very facilities might actually change the working practices of Justices. Most interestingly, the shared work-spaces and collaboration tools may alter the way Justices debate issues and work together in drafting their judgments.
Richard Susskind is IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and Visiting Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute. He was a member of the Supreme Court IT User Group.
This is a revised version of an article that appeared in The Times Law section on 1 October 2009.Tweet