I was sorry not to make it to Lord Justice Jackson’s speech to the Society for Computers & Law this week. Someone will doubtless write a full report in due course, but for now the Law Society Gazette brings us a summary under the heading Jackson warns of compulsory electronic era.
Most of what is listed in the article relates to the provision of IT services by the courts which lawyers will be required to use, including compliance monitoring requiring parties to tick boxes to show that they have achieved milestones required by the rules or by court orders. There will also be a form for completing budgets which will presumably take account of the feedback received from the form already in use.
We will have to wait and see what is meant by the “development of systems to manage the disclosure of documents”. Disclosure is an obligation which falls on the parties, who can choose from a wide range of software applications according to taste and budget to help them cull the dross and prioritise the rest for review and subsequent exchange. I can see immense value in a court-led system for holding the conjoined (and de-duplicated) disclosure of both parties after exchange or, at least, that part of it which goes into the equivalent of the conventional trial bundle or which is the subject of an application before the court. I am unconvinced that the court has a role in hosting (as opposed to managing) documents at any stage prior to this.
Civil servants and user-facing databases have not made for happy combinations in the past, as anyone who has to grapple with the online presence of HM Revenue and Customs will testify. I recently had to fill in a VAT form which one could only access if one knew its form number; it did not open on a Mac, had no provision for saving the data either locally or at HMRC and, when printed, would have used half a pint of green ink. It was invented, I decided, by a committee of accountants, tax inspectors and geeks with no human involvement at all. Let us hope that the Ministry of Justice involves real live users when devising its systems (and, perhaps, takes some advice on the terms of contract with its providers).
That much is beyond the control of Lord Justice Jackson. We can be in no doubt, however, that those things which are within his power will happen. As with eDisclosure itself, the technology is secondary to the process, and all the fancy forms and electronic box-ticking will not help if judges and those who appear before them do not take seriously their shared obligation to fulfil the overriding objective. That requires active management by judges as well as project management by lawyers; both have hitherto felt themselves rather above that sort of thing.