It has been observed unkindly that a high proportion of my research seems to be done in bars. I find them good places to pick up information, especially if everyone else drinks and I do not. Perhaps it is less to do with drink and more with not being in an office – today’s assignation with a software company is in a patisserie, for example. It was at a bar, a while back now, that I met Robert Onslow, who stuck in the mind as the only software developer I know who is at the other kind of bar.
Robert combines a busy practice as a barrister specialising in IP and computer–related cases with the development of a software application called XBundle. He and fellow-director Andrew Steven had come up with an idea for replicating electronically the paper bundles which Robert used in court. The concept was simple. The only target was to achieve an efficient electronic substitute for the paper bundles. Anything which went further than that was ruled out.
I was then a solicitor-turned-software-developer, and saw XBundle’s potential as the final destination for documents which had been reviewed in my software. All the complicated stuff – reviewing, selecting, tagging and so on – would be done in my application, leaving only the agreed trial bundle to go into XBundle for presentation in court. One of the hard things for people to grasp who are new to this subject is that, for the most part, data is data is data and it should not be hard to move it from one tool to another which is better suited for whatever the next phase is. The same principle applies to data exchange between parties.
I lost track of XBundle as I moved from developing to commentary, and Robert and Andrew got stuck in, as I now know, to refining their idea. Last night they showed it off, in the appropriate setting of the UK Intellectual Property Office in London.
The first part of the demonstration was from James Norton whose company BriefBundle has its own product called BriefBox. BriefBox is an on-line application which allows lawyers and others to make up bundles of documents and share them with others – solicitors can share with barristers and experts for example. Like XBundle, it does not purport to be a substitute for heavy review and coding, just (I mean nothing derogatory by that) a centralised, shareable information store with version control, access security and document history tools. One of its features is the ability to send a completed bundle to XBundle.
We were not told the cost of BriefBox and so I can give you no clue as to the ratio of expense to value. On the face of it, though, it offered a straightforward way of gathering together existing electronic documents in a set which could be sent off for others to access, including users of XBundle.
Robert Onslow then showed us XBundle, and it is a compliment rather than the reverse to say that there was not much to see. Consistent with the paper bundles which it is designed to replicate, XBundle allows documents to be grouped by bundle, tab and pages. A drop-down list allows documents to be picked, by their name rather than by some obscure code. Notes – yellow of course – can be stuck beside passages in the documents and searched for by their titles. You can highlight passages with a marker pen, open several bundles (so that you can compare two documents), click to a cross-reference, and move between a chronology and a page.
This usage may be private – just for the barrister himself – or can be shared with the court across a network, with an operator turning the pages.
That’s about it, apart from the enormous advantage that you can carry any number of the bundles about with you and the pages don’t scatter all over the place if you drop the bundle whilst working on the train.
A short mock hearing ensued, with Robert using paper bundles and another barrister using XBundle. Needless to say, the user of the electronic bundle got there first every time, with the bonus of having the documents displayed in colour, whilst Robert fumbled with monochrome paper. He stood up well to questioning from an interested audience, answering most questions about enhancements by pointing to XBundle’s design aim: if a function exceeded what a paper bundle gave – text search for example – it was not in XBundle.
The pricing is equally straightforward – the application is free to download and the licence cost is 15p per page for as long as you want to use the bundle. There are some obvious prior costs – paper must be scanned or extracted from an electronic source and most users will need help to get the documents into the system in the first place. The scanning cost, of course, is incurred only once, whereas photocopies must be made multiple times – an expense which always seems to be overlooked when people consider the costs of case preparation.
The audience included Sir Anthony Mann and HHJ Simon Brown QC, two judges with a close interest in encouraging the use of technology in the courts and both willing to use it themselves. Judge Brown and I are working both in the Birmingham Civil Justice Centre and on wider platforms to bring together the stick of the Rules with the carrot of making litigation more attractive to those who can choose whether or not to engage in it – the clients. We hope to make Birmingham a place where people will choose to bring their disputes and spotted in Robert Onslow – both with and without his interesting application – someone who can help with that.
The quest is for two things. In the wider context, there must be a cultural change based on the brute reality that lawyers – solicitors, barristers and judges – must adapt to the fact that most documents are now electronic and that converting them to paper is grossly expensive and inefficient. At a grass-roots level, this means seeking out suppliers and applications which make this as easy and cost-effective as possible.
There is more to this than mere technology, and more than beating lawyers about the ears with the Rules – although that has its place. The whole business has to be more approachable – vendors with an interest beyond mere selling and judges with open minds as to new ways of meeting the overriding objective, one of whose management factors [1.4(2)(k) CPR] is “making use of technology”. A practising barrister demonstrating an application which he has created to meet his own needs is a more compelling advocate than a salesman with a target to reach. This particular barrister also illustrated that only a thin line separates barristers from actors, which makes for a more interesting demonstration than one generally gets.
Barristers (including leading counsel) are expressly implicated in disclosure decisions in the Commercial Court Recommendations now being piloted. What applies in that court applies, where proportionate, elsewhere. What we saw yesterday may help convey to barristers, as well as to solicitors, that electronic disclosure is not just a back-room process necessary to chew through masses of documents in compliance with the Rules, but something with an end-product which makes life easier.