Tipping the balance

Disputes lawyers will be acutely aware of the keen sense of contest in fighting over the issues involved in litigation.

Now there is a new challenge facing litigators – the advent of computerised litigation support systems used both in the office environment for trial preparation and in the courtroom for trial presentation.

Ways in which computers can be used may well provide a party with a decisive advantage over the opposition – unless and until technology becomes standard practice both in law firms and throughout the court system.

At DJ Freeman, we have invested in systems that enable us to make extensive use of litigation support technology.

Its value has been recently demonstrated in a major construction law trial heard before Judge Bowsher, Official Referee, where we successfully defended the Eagle Star Group against allegations of conspiracy which were brought against it by a major name in the building industry.

Successful use of litigation support is about doing what litigators would do anyway, but doing it more effectively, within shorter timescales and by making better use of available resources. The client should be just as content with the outcome of a trial as they would have been had conventional methods been used.

Litigation support by computer is certainly new and exciting and that justifiably adds to the considerable levels of interest that are rightly being focused on the field.

However, technology will never take the place of skilled legal thought and effort. It is a means to a professional goal and not the goal itself.

What is required of the lawyer is to carefully match work objectives with the appropriate levels of IT skill and resources from both within the law firm and outside it.

In the Eagle Star case, we had two main objectives. First to take in and analyse a substantial quantity of documentary information within a short period of time. From that information we then had to extract and code the vital detail in order to form a pleading in the action.

Maintaining the selected information on computer gave a highly efficient method of organising, storing and retrieving that detail.

Our second prime function related to the proofing of the scores of witness statements which were to stand as evidence in chief in the case. Again this had to be done within a short timescale.

The power and effectiveness of the technology was clearly demonstrated when material relevant to any given witness could be retrieved in only minutes from the collection of over a quarter of a million documents stored in the computer.

The technology tools which we used for these tasks comprised first the setting up of an open-ended database to place and hold the pleaded detail and second the imaging and coding of all the relevant documentary evidence.

The barristers involved were able to plead their case straight on to our office computer system – cutting down significantly on routine document processing times.

Holding the images of documents on computer gave instant access to any document – which otherwise would have required a sophisticated search and locate exercise from within a warehouse chock full of documentation.

A natural by-product of the use of technology was overcoming the logistical difficulties of storage and physically handling thousands of lever arch files of paper.

The critical balance between in-house expertise and essential out-sourced services was created by contracting all imaging and coding tasks to an outside agency, in our case the Quorum Organisation, allowing our IT group to provide essential continuous support to fee earners while maintaining the system itself as a self-contained unit within our overall computer network.

This division of services proved the right one when the case proceeded to court, at which stage it was possible to link our in-house IT functions to the courtroom itself by means of mega stream links.

For our client the case itself was the success they wanted. For us the period of trial preparation and court presentation proved the benefits that can be gained by getting the right balance of in-house expertise and out-sourced IT services. For those keen to explore the advantages of litigating with technology, the future should prove as exciting as undoubtedly it will prove challenging.

Anthony Edwards is a partner at DJ Freeman.