The advantages of computerising evidence improved effectiveness, portability, and communication by far outweigh the initial investment, says Julie Bridge. Julie Bridge is marketing director at WestKey.

Following the release of Lord Woolf's 1996 report advocating greater use of litigation support technology, the majority of litigation lawyers are now aware of the concept of computerised evidence.

However, there is still widespread confusion about how it works in practice, and the benefits it can bring.

Computerising evidence entails putting all of the evidence relating to a particular case on to a database and storing it on CD-Rom. This can be of particular assistance during the discovery process, enabling lawyers on both sides to use the digitised information, reducing the need to make massive numbers of photocopies.

If a case has over 1,000 documents that need to be reproduced multiple times, com puterised evidence is the most cost-effective option.

Transferring information onto a database is also advantageous if the case is complex, requiring extensive examination of documentary evidence.

For computerised evidence to be admissible in court, an agreement must be reached between all the parties involved in the case, including the judge. There is an increasing inclination to use computerised evidence to speed up the case process in large, complex trials.

This has been reflected by the Lord Chancellor's department, which has recently issued all High Court judges with laptops.

To translate documents into a computerised form, they are marked, paginated, then scanned using either imaging or optical character recognition (OCR). Where documents are of insufficient print quality to scan successfully, they will have to either be rekeyed or scanned and 'cleaned' that is, partially rekeyed.

Once digitised, the data is indexed and transferred into a searchable database. Most systems have the flexibility to allow documents to be reorganised as required.

Imaging and OCR scanning are slightly different. Imaging simply translates the black and white dots that make an image into a computerised form. OCR scanning goes a significant step further: it identifies what letter or digit a particular pattern of dots represents, converting the 'picture' of the page into words stored in a database.

This way, a highly flexible document database can be created. Specified documents can be retrieved, and the entire document collection can be searched by individual words or word groups.

A good data capture processing (DCP) company using OCR scanning should be capable of creating a working database containing the equivalent of 80 A4 lever arch files of text documents in 10 to 15 working days.

If the documents are purely text and are OCR scanned, over 250,000 pages 1,000 A4 lever arch files can be stored on a single CD-Rom. However, if imaging is used, this is reduced to 20,000 pages or 80 files.

Using OCR scanning and a basic indexing database, documents of good print quality can be digitised for 20 to 30 pence per page, depending on the volume. If imaging is used the cost is 5 to 20 pence per page. Copies of the database can then be reproduced on CD-Rom for around £40.

Computerised evidence offers improved effectiveness. Flexible database search facilities allow lawyers to massively increase their speed and effectiveness in finding key points that build a winning case.

Computerised evidence can also assist the case management process. Many database software packages include a facility to copy data on to a word processing file, enabling lawyers to create and annotate their own tailored accounts of the activities and developments of the case, which can then be stored for future reference.

Once evidence has been transferred onto CD-Rom it becomes easily transportable much more so than piles of lever arch files. Using a laptop computer, lawyers can enjoy access to all the case documentation, whether in court, at home, or on the move.

Once computerised evidence has been put onto a central server, it can be accessed electronically from anywhere in the world. This not only speeds up the case communication process, but ensures more secure and convenient transportation of information than by fax.

Finally, storage costs will be much reduced by this type of system. The bulky original files can be stored off-site in cheaper locations, while CD-Roms holding computerised evidence are kept at the office.