Real approaches to digital evidence that work

Posted by Tom Dean, senior business development manager at Legal Futures Associate Thomson Reuters

Dean: Problem is not going away

In June, I published a post on Legal Futures asking why the legal sector struggles so much with digital evidence. Given that video, audio and other multimedia exhibits are so prevalent in today’s cases, why can something as simple as presenting a piece of CCTV footage cause courts so much difficulty?

As you might have guessed, my question was somewhat rhetorical. Many courts, law firms and local authorities do have solutions for this.

In the weeks following my post, several articles appeared on this blog discussing various topics related to digital transformation in the sector. These authors all have experience of using Thomson Reuters Case Center to build bundles, manage and share evidence, and present these during hearings.

The future of law

Darren Weir is the director of lawyering skills at Kent Law School and organiser of the National Law Student Triathlon. He, his colleagues and students have been using Case Center for many years to share notes, create bundles, and prepare for external moots.

The system has proven such a success that the school chose it as the platform for the National Law Student Triathlon, which began in 2022. Competitors from across the UK use it for one week prior to the event to upload documents and complete challenges.

Sarah Hair, a member of this year’s winning team from Queen’s University Belfast, has completed much of her degree virtually because of the pandemic. Online lectures were an everyday feature of her university experience, as was using assistive lawtech like Westlaw.

She also worked closely with Case Center during the triathlon and quickly got to grips with it. The concept of a single evidence base in the cloud eliminated the need to exchange documents by email, and creating master bundles was a step up from the online PDF-bundling tools that are often used.

Sarah also saw the potential in Case Center’s presentation tools, where participants in a hearing are automatically directed to points of evidence to avoid delays.

As a graduating law student, perspectives like Sarah’s are invaluable. They give us a clear sense of what tomorrow’s professionals expect from technology and how they view the sector’s current practices. Law is not known for adapting rapidly to change, and it can take new voices to show how the world has moved around us while we stood still.

An international perspective

Judge Samuel A Thumma from the Arizona Court of Appeals Division One has long been a champion of digital transformation and has worked on several initiatives to this effect in his home state. He has chaired Arizona’s task force on court management of digital evidence, which outlined its vision in a 2017 paper.

Given that almost all pre-court disclosure and discovery was digital by that point, it made sense to make the transmission of evidence between parties and courts as seamless as possible.

Fast forward to 2023, and this vision of a digital evidence portal is now a reality, being piloted across all 15 Arizona counties and covering an area considerably larger than the UK. Improved digitisation is especially important in a state such as Arizona, where a journey to a courthouse can take hours in some of its more sparsely populated areas.

Striking a balance

I’m a staunch advocate for better use of lawtech — it’s my job — but I recognise that context is key. Solicitor Louise Duckett of Davis Simmonds & Donaghey outlined this very well in her recent post about the technological shifts we have seen since the start of the pandemic.

As a family lawyer, Louise handles complex cases dealing with sensitive and emotive issues. Often, a personal approach to these cases works better than a digital one, but that doesn’t mean that digital tools have no place in her work.

Louise notes that Case Center “transformed” a recent case she was working on, which took place over 45 days and involved highly complex evidence and documentation. All participants could be directed to the right points of a common version of a bundle stored in the cloud without having to flick through hundreds of pages of paper.

Case Center also allowed authorised parties to view the video evidence used in the case in their browser. This represented a marked improvement over using a single DVD player for the court and a clerk rewinding footage on request.

But in some cases, virtual meetings can make it hard to pick up on the small visual cues that are important at many stages during a hearing. Some court users don’t have reliable access to the internet. And even if they do, watching proceedings on a tiny smartphone screen is not a replacement for being there in person, especially if the case concerns your family.

There is no magic spell we can cast to fix digital evidence. Courts, local authorities and lawyers will all have their own needs and their own approaches. The right technology is surely part of the answer, but having good people and good processes are just as important.

One thing is for sure, though: the volumes of digital evidence in our legal system will only grow. Ignoring reality and hoping the problem goes away will just make things worse in the long run.


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