Having worked for the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office (RCPO) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), it staggers me what little progress has been made in the area of Electronic Filing Submissions (EFS) - something which can drive efficiency and generate £10s millions in costs savings to the benefit of the tax payer.
Instead of working with just paper and email, it's about time the Judiciary in the UK and Wales, our legal firms and Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) who operationally run the courts services, think seriously about partnering for success.
Email is so bad
Currently, the only way to submit electronic filing by individual litigants and legal firms into HMCTS appears (still) to be through email and attachments or by using the ubiquitous paper medium. There have been a number attempts over the past few years to resolve this however the output has been nothing more than a number of large and small technology projects abandoned or failed…at significant cost to the tax payer.
It really is time HMCTS reevaluates how it operates and the future Digital Court service learns from previous attempts to transform the court services.
So how does Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) get electronic filing so right?
Most of us have all filed online tax submissions (no different to EFS) and the uptake has been tremendous. It has been a success because, despite it being a large cultural change programme, the technology deployed was kept simple to use by anyone securely.
HMRC also decided to move from paper to web rather than think about electronic PDF submissions as the main approach. In doing so, they are now equipped to use the structured data to drive back-office processes much more effectively.
Paper on glass never works
If you take the millions of paper forms HMCTS court processes and replicate these verbatim, you will not gain any efficiency from holding the information in a structured form. Without the reengineering of old world paper forms, it's more complex to work out HMCTS billings and it's even more complex to use the filings submitted to schedule the resources of HMCTS operationally at courts or arbitration services i.e. to manage case load for civil and family matters
Where there is a will there is a solution. One of the bigger challenges with electronic filing is non- repudiation and the validity of electronic signatures. However, this is an easy fix, with techniques such as two factor authentication and digital signatures. Furthermore, legal precedencrs have been set throughout Europe so this should not be considered a blocker.
The current systems used within HMCTS are complex, old and niche, having been 'built up' over the years.
HMCTS should consider trying something different, such as partnering for change. This could help to cut through the complexities of integration and enable a focus on the core services to be provided by HMCTS instead of getting bogged down in technology "how to".
Changing statute takes many years
During my time at the MOJ, I often heard this cited as a reason why we couldn't progress with electronic filing innovation. However, anything is possible quickly if there is a willingness to support progress for the benefit of society. Judiciary, you need to lead from the front on this matter.
The role of our legal firms
Legal firms, public bodies and litigants, to the most part, are the source of filings to Court. Clearly, if this is all done in paper or in electronic email it's not very efficient is it? This burns time and time means cash and you know what's inferred here. It's high time that legal firms in the UK and Wales considered being more interested in how to become more cost efficient and more transformational in the way in which they engage with the court services.
Two approaches to partnering for change
Simply suspending progress is not an option for HMCTS, the Judiciary and the legal firms in England and Wales with respect to electronic filing submission into the court services. Effective change can come about through partnering. Here are two approaches for consideration.
Approach one: So why doesn't HMCTS partner with one or more of the national legal firms who could provide a national electronic filing based service on a per-filing pricing model basis to HMCTS? This also requires a partnership with strong leadership from the Judiciary to drive through any appropriate statute changes to allow commercial organisations to charge HMCTS.
How could this prevent access to Justice for all? It does not. If this commercial arrangement is transparent then what's the problem with this approach? Is it also unreasonable to consider spreading the costs of a solution provided by one or two legal firms over 8,000 commercial legal firms as a right to operate in this space and make profits?
Approach two: Another partnering approach would be for HMCTS to partner with HMRC. If HMRC can make this work for online tax submissions then surely this is another example of how HMCTS could partner innovatively with another public sector partner for a successful outcome to society!
Finally, cultural change and partnering is the key to success
As I mentioned earlier, cultural change is required across Judiciary, HMCTS and legal firms to make partnerships a success and partnerships are an ingredient to innovation. In the current climate of austerity surely now is the time to get these issue sorted and move forward. Carpe diem, the upside far outweighs a suspended agenda.