Why council lawyers went for DIY digital development

Nottinghamshire County Council’s legal team has created its own system for providing digital court bundles, and helped deliver a multimillion-pound package of annual efficiencies in the process. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Under pressure to make savings and recognising an area where a shift to digital working was long overdue, lawyers at Nottinghamshire County Council have come up trumps by taking matters into their own hands. Through do-it-yourself changes that have mainly involved getting the most from off-the-shelf software and old laptops, they have made a significant contribution to cutting their council’s annual legal services operating budget from £6m to £3.5m.

The digital journey began in 2014, but the most significant innovation came after Geoff Russell, who heads the council’s litigation team, proposed an e-bundle for court documents. His idea was to put a stop to the expense of photocopying, storing and transporting hefty paper bundles between the council, courts and magistrates. 

“We didn’t have any money for a case management system,” says Russell. “And in my experience bespoke software tends to do some things well, but others not so well. And if you want someone to write programmes for you, it generally costs a lot of money.

“What we decided was to keep things simple by using ordinary software. In terms of the front end, we needed a localised scanning solution, because we have a lot of paper coming in by post each morning.

“We mapped all our processes. For instance, we allowed 10 minutes a day for each practitioner to open and photocopy their post, which was a conservative estimate. And we realised that process alone was costing the equivalent 1.5 full-time solicitors a year. Such a waste.”

So the legal team agreed to use Adobe Acrobat Pro to digitise its court bundles. Russell estimates the cost at about £2,500 for 10 licences, against £22,000 for bespoke e-bundle software. 

Staff can create electronic paginated, searchable bundles which are easy to store and copy. They send them to court using a secure server, while the receiver has to enter a predetermined password before opening and saving the e-bundle to the court system. “It took a while to change the culture in the office, until people saw the benefits,” he says.

And then some old council laptops, with no internet connection, were dusted off. Russell decided to take them to court and load the e-bundle from an encrypted memory stick. As he explains: “Judges are equipped with laptops through the Ministry of Justice, but magistrates are not.

“What we asked magistrates was, ‘instead of bringing bundles to court, if we bring you some laptops with the bundle already on, would you use them?’. And they said ‘yes’. We did a few hearings like that. They got to grips with it and really liked it.”

The one vulnerability, he admits, is the memory stick. “It’s a workaround and it would be good if it could be done electronically. Some organisations now are looking at shared digital rooms where people can dial in and have access to documents. That’s another way of doing it. But the issue from my point of view is that someone has to maintain that, which is a whole heap of work in itself that we want to avoid.”

At the outset, Russell didn’t think the Courts Service would be interested. “If you do anything electronically with the Ministry of Justice you have people crawling all over it,” he says. “And using the PSN was a problem because it would involve all sorts of third parties, and then trying to get different organisations to talk to each other using networks. It just becomes a headache.”

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Nottinghamshire’s do-it-yourself electronic approach, including the e-bundle, means the legal team has reduced administration costs across all its work by 75 per cent. It has made a considerable impact on child care cases alone. Each year the council deals with around 150 child care cases and it used to outsource about 50 per cent of those because of limited capacity. Now that digitisation has freed up staff time, all cases are dealt with in house, saving £850,000 a year on external legal services. 

Digitising court bundles, which began as a pilot in late 2014, is now established practice across all the court work undertaken by the council’s legal services. “We have just done this as lawyers,” says Russell. “We got together and said, ‘do you know what, there is lots of promise out there with lots of benefits that we just never seem to avail ourselves of’. And it gets frustrating, especially when we’re required to deliver savings.

“You can sit around and wait for the Ministry of Justice to come up with something for you, but the fact is they won’t and you need to help yourself. And we found a way of implementing this as lay people and no one has an issue. It’s working digitally and has cost relatively little.”

The council is beginning to raise the profile of its e-bundle. It has hosted days at a local court where officials from other local authorities can see how it works. Representatives from Bristol City Council, Luton Borough Council and West Sussex County Council have been among those in attendance. 

“All of this has taught me that it’s dead easy: the products are there, you just have to join them up,” says Russell. “What is time consuming is changing the attitudes of all those around you to accept it and use it. 

“I’m now a big believer in changing culture by making the user experience good, and the only way to achieve that it is to keep it simple.”

Jim Dunton

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