White heat of technology will revolutionise legal system

Cherie Booth QC says a decade spent using IT has taught her that computerisation is the key to bringing down the costs of justice.

The Launch of the Government's consultation paper, Civil Justice – Resolving and Avoiding Disputes in the Information Age, in September this year prompted me to examine how much the use of IT has transformed my own practice.

I was first introduced to IT in the spring of 1988, when two important events in my life coincided. The birth of my daughter brought with it a short period of maternity leave, together with the need to keep at least my paperwork practice going.

At the same time, my then chambers invested in a computerised fee system and we were all offered the opportunity of purchasing our own PCs.

I took the opportunity to learn how to use the computer. On my return to work I found that I had overnight become the chambers expert on the system.

Not long after that, I found myself co-opted onto the IT committee at the Bar Council and I have been hooked ever since.

I could not continue to practice in the way and to the extent that I do without IT. In chambers we have a fully integrated network, which enables me to consult my diary, look at my fees, send e-mails to the clerks and other members, all from my desk.

But that is not all. With the help of an ISDN line I can also connect to these facilities while out of chambers, whether at home or abroad.

In chambers, we have several CD-Roms which I can access wherever I travel. I visited China a week before I was due to appear in the Court of Appeal in the recent educational negligence case of Phelps v London Borough of Hillingdon.

Even though I was thousands of miles from chambers, because I was armed with a portable computer, the Law of Education, the Weekly Law Reports and the White Book on CD-Rom together with a modem, I was able to continue with my preparations for the case.

The recent launching of the Butterworths Direct service has added to my flexibility. I can now dial into the service and obtain the latest updates of Halsbury's Laws of England and the Daily All England Reports service, in ways which are actually quicker and more convenient than searching all over chambers for the books and the updates.

The consultation paper looks beyond the experiences I have outlined to see where the use of IT is likely to lead in the future. There seems little doubt that a whole new market for accessible and more general legal advice over the Internet is likely to redress much of the presently unmet need for legal advice.

The paper also sees a major need for IT to simplify and streamline the procedure in high-volume, low-value cases. While this may not provide a Rolls Royce service, it will provide a more accessible and cheaper system of justice.

The consultation paper is right to challenge whether it is really justice for all to provide a service which is so expensive that only the very rich or the very poor are able to litigate.

But it will also transform the medium and large-scale civil cases with the introduction of unified case management, litigation support systems and courtroom technology. Such developments do, however, depend on intensive training courses for judges many of whom are not familiar with IT.

The consultation paper envisages a brave new world where hearings will be shorter and more focused, and where the computer will take the strain out of litigation, in a way I could not have dreamt of back in 1988.

That these changes will come, I have no doubt. The challenge for all lawyers is to be prepared for changes and to embrace them as a genuine way of lowering the costs of justice, while improving access to justice for everybody.