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London Courts Go Digital Ending Dickensian Document Legal Maze

Trainee Lawyer Rebecca Taylor
Trainee Lawyer Rebecca Taylor outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Documents in London courts for all but the smallest claims must be delivered and collected by hand, just as they were in 1836 when Charles Dickens described clerks hurrying around London “with bundles of papers under their arms.” Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Rebecca Taylor, a 24-year-old trainee lawyer, greets the clerk sitting behind a glass counter in London’s Royal Courts of Justice. She’s there to pick up legal documents, a trek she makes two or three times a day.

Through the glass, a wall of green folders bulges with papers from hundreds of lawsuits. The official types into a computer and Taylor gets the bad news. She’ll have to go to a different building and ask again.

Documents in London courts for all but the smallest claims must be delivered and collected by hand, just as they were in 1836 when Charles Dickens described clerks hurrying around London “with bundles of papers under their arms.” That’s all about to change as the courts get ready for a digital reboot.

At stake is the U.K.’s status as one of the leading global hubs for business disputes. The legal industry contributes an estimated 20 billion pounds to the British economy, according to lobbying group TheCityUK. Three quarters of the litigants in London’s commercial courts come from overseas, according to another group, Portland Legal Disputes.

“There’s no other court in the world which has the volume of international business, where the parties choose to be in London,” said Joe Smouha, a senior trial lawyer or barrister, known as Queen’s Counsel. “In terms of remaining the number one commercial court, it’s essential our technology is up to date.”

The Ministry of Justice in March announced a 375 million-pound ($615 million) project to upgrade technology in 3,000 courtrooms and tribunals over five years. Having to turn up in person wastes court time and taxpayer money and online alternatives may save as much as 100 million pounds a year, the agency said.

Daunting Task

The government’s task is daunting. Evidence can run into hundreds of thousands of pages, stuffed into folders known as trial bundles. In a 2008 lawsuit between construction companies building Wembley Stadium, the cost of photocopying alone ran to 1 million pounds.

“Our clients and partners in the U.S. get frustrated,” said Richard East, a London partner at U.S.-based law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP. When they ask to search online “we say we can’t do that here, we have to send somebody down to court and we’ll get back to you.”

Americans have been able to access U.S. court documents online since 1988 and have had e-filing since the ’90s.

Marble Statues

Taylor’s case has been transferred to the commercial division, a few blocks away. She heads for the exit of the 140-year-old Royal Courts of Justice, home to more than 100 courts linked by maze of stone corridors and staircases.

In the main hall, marble statues of judges stare down on lawyers and tourists. Taylor is a few weeks into a six-month stint clerking at law firm RPC.

“The RCJ can seem like a labyrinth,” she says. “It does get easier. I know my way around the court buildings now.”

Overseeing the court’s five-year digital upgrade are Judges Vivian Ramsey and Elizabeth Gloster, who are members of the Technology Executive Board.

Both judges wore suits rather than robes or wigs while drinking coffee at the Rolls Building, a modern complex that hosts the U.K. legal system’s biggest financial lawsuits.

“You have to decide in any modernization what’s beneficial to keep,” Ramsey said.

Abramovich Trial

Gloster presided over a 2011 trial between Russian billionaires Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky, in which the litigants paid for in-court screens to display evidence and documents at the click of a mouse.

Although it was called the U.K.’s first paperless trial, it was really a less-paper trial. Stacks of binders were still in court, they just weren’t used as much. The system, sold by Opus 2 International and now widely used in the Rolls Building, saved about 5 million sheets of paper, according to Opus founder Graham Smith-Bernal.

Gloster said the way paperwork is handled during trials remains similar to when she started her career as a lawyer in the 1970s. “This is what depresses me.”

“We had sweating clerks in Dickensian fashion heaving folders into court on trolleys” said Gloster, 65. “We can’t have 500 bundles being wheeled into court. It’s got to change.”

Online System

Next year, the Rolls Building will introduce an online system that will allow people to file claims, witness statements and other documents. Thomson Reuters Corp. won the 5 million-pound contract to install it in May.

It’ll be the first mainstream British court to offer e-filing, something available in the U.S., Dubai, Singapore, Canada, and Australia.

“There’s a real brightening of the skies,” Gloster said. “We’ve got the money, we’ve got the will and we’ve got a new structure in place.”

Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, competes with Thomson Reuters to sell financial information and offers a document-tracking service in London courts.

Officials tried something similar before, albeit on a smaller scale and without much success. In 2008, Royal Courts of Justice started an electronic system that was hardly used and scrapped in 2012 after about 9.5 million pounds was spent.

‘Pickwick Papers’

London courts have already changed in ways that Charles Dickens, who worked as a legal clerk before he wrote “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836, would find hard to recognize. In October, cameras were allowed into U.K. tribunals for the first time after lobbying by broadcasters.

Reforms in 2008 mean some judges no longer wear wigs and High Court judges in commercial and family cases were given redesigned robes, black with red stripes under the collar. The outfits are modern enough that the Daily Mail newspaper compared them to Star Trek uniforms.

Taylor passes through a metal detector and finds the right counter at the Rolls Building, which was opened in 2011 and was heralded as the world’s largest center for financial disputes.

A clerk confirms the case is available. It will take as long as five days to get the documents and Taylor must come back and pay a fee.

“Is there any way of speeding it up?” Taylor said.

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