The Irish Times view on technology in the legal sector: Going digital – at last

In the courts, the case for faster, more efficient systems has become inarguable

Chief Justice Frank Clarke speaks during the first remote sitting of the Supreme Court on Monday. Photograph: Collins Courts

Chief Justice Frank Clarke speaks during the first remote sitting of the Supreme Court on Monday. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

For most organisations, holding a video-conference is no big deal. With Covid-19 restrictions forcing businesses and employees to transform how they operate, remote working has in the space of a few short weeks become the norm for many of us. Yet when the Supreme Court held a case management hearing by video yesterday, the legal world registered a small earthquake.

The court system, like the legal world in general, has been slow to join the technological revolution. It is a world of paper – court filings, judgments, correspondence, fines, warrants and exhibits are overwhelmingly still physical objects that sit in large cabinets or get hauled into court by barristers with trollies. Solicitors, a large share of whose work is not bespoke or creative but essentially process-based paperwork, have resisted templates and automation; some of them remain ardent devotees of the fax machine. A cynic would say the legal profession’s resistance to new technology is self-serving; some legal work is still billed by the hour, which is a disincentive to speedy work. The more charitable view is that a conservative sector that puts a high premium on privacy has good reason to take it slowly.

When the Supreme Court introduced a system to allow lawyers submit their documents electronically, the court found that many of them continued to persist with their beloved paper files

In fairness, change has been coming. Clients’ expectations have changed. So have the incentives; a large law firm with an eye on its future development can no longer stand aloof from machine learning or big data. For organisations such as the Courts Service, whose technological development slowed dramatically after its budget was cut during the economic crisis but which has been catching up in recent years, the case for faster, more efficient systems has become inarguable.

Yet even when it provides new services, the legal profession can be slow to embrace it. When the Supreme Court introduced a system to allow lawyers submit their documents electronically, the court found that many of them continued to persist with their beloved paper files. The current crisis means they may have no choice. The legal system’s long overdue switch to digital is about to accelerate.

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