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E-Bundling – How Soon is Now?

Gawain Williams, Solicitor with Carmarthenshire County Council, describes the benefits of E-bundling as demonstrated by a project established for care proceedings in South West Wales.

Gawain Williams, Solicitor, Carmarthenshire County Council












Gawain Williams
, Childcare Solicitor, Carmarthenshire County Council

Far from being the future, e-bundling is very much the present for the local authorities that work in, and interact with, the Swansea Care Centre in South West Wales. With the introduction of the PLO, many practitioners from the local authorities and private practice in South West Wales could see that in a time of change there is always opportunity.  The increasing need for measures that are efficient, save time, energy and costs are clearly at the forefront of the minds of both private practitioners facing an even more competitive environment and local authorities looking at ways of delivering better services with less resource.  So, it seemed to those of us practising in public law children work that the time was right for e-bundling to replace paper bundling.

When talking about online or computer projects it is easy to fall into 'Apprentice' style business speak, to descend into techno babble or to over-sell the value of what is being done, placing too much emphasis on the agency or software mechanism by which the change is taking place. The reality is more that the software and the methodology are largely irrelevant – few focus on the brand of motor vehicle that replaced the horse, the real story is that it did. In the case of using electronic means to share bundles, data and material online the use of new systems means that the writing is on the wall (or server) for paper based ways of working and the real story here is that electronic systems will replace paper as surely as the motor vehicle replaced the horse.

What is E-bundling and who is doing it?
The South Wales Shared Services Portal (The Portal) is the way that Solicitors, Counsel, the Judiciary, CAFCASS and many other agencies now share information in a secure online environment which ensures that the lengthy and costly process of conducting care proceedings is made simpler by an immediate, secure but accessible system.

If you have a care case with a local authority in South West Wales, you can log in and have electronic  access to all of the cases that you have with any of the six authorities using Swansea Care Centre (which covers all of Mid and South West Wales and South Powys). By doing so, you are able to see and download all of the disclosures that make up the bundle as it is updated. You can also upload any disclosure or document whenever you need to.  Access is on a 'permission by case' basis so you only see the cases that apply to you.

Launched in June the Portal has been up and running for six months and the vast majority of cases instigated by local authorities in Mid and South West Wales and issued in the Swansea Family Court are now on the Portal. There are currently just under five hundred users ranging from large law firms to sole practitioners, barristers, judges, paralegals and experts in proceedings. They download all of the various types of disclosure in cases. This is most frequently the typed / handwritten material disclosed in cases. However, users can now also download and listen to audio files, watch video files and see photographs without going through the usual rigmarole of burning a CD or DVD discs or being at the mercy of the variable quality of the colour printer being used to copy photographs. We have some good experience built up in sharing bundles online and the uptake of the system is very high. 

This shared services project is being managed by Andrew Morris, a Business Manager at Swansea City and County Council, and myself, a childcare solicitor at Carmarthenshire County Council.  The Welsh Assembly Government approved the project and has assisted with funding.  At its inception Swansea were developing the concept of adopting inter agency file-sharing using a Regional Collaboration Fund grant in partnership. This concept was a good basis for the e-bundling project and fulfilled our technological needs. Following a regional Judges' Conference, the time for E-bundling was considered ripe by the assembled professionals and we set about working on creating the Portal.  We initially brought in some technologically minded practitioners to model and then test the system to ensure that a user-friendly approach was in place from the start. This seems to have paid off now that it is being used by a significant proportion of the family law community in South West Wales. The Portal is set up to be as simple as possible and quick and easy to access and use. Our main consideration when thinking about how it should work and the question at the forefront of our minds was: can this system be used without any training? To date the answer seems to be yes.

Essentially the system, which is internet-based, enables users to access their bundles whether working from the office, home, the train or from court. Therefore, provided they can access the internet, they can access all of their cases without having to carry a mountain of paper around and can upload any documents to it. All of the other parties logging in can see what has been uploaded immediately. 

The system is based on CITRIX's Sharefile. There is an array of Apps and plug-ins to use which means if you are out an about with an iPad or any other mobile device you can stay in touch with the files. 

The stored information is located on servers within the UK to ensure that data protection is maintained and that the Information Commissioner is satisfied that data security is of a standard that meets his requirements. The site itself is encrypted, as is all communication to and from it.

The challenges encountered......
Moving to a new system is always hard and it has not been helped by the pace of change in family law in recent years which has led to most forms and protocols changing, from the way cases are issued to the way bundles are constructed. Yet another change could have bewildered rather than assisted the family law community. However this has not been the case.  Whilst for some it will have been yet another problem to grapple with, for most the initial wariness about more change has been overtaken by the clear benefits that come with the speed and ease of access to materials on the Portal that used to take far longer and cost far more to distribute. 

The main challenge lies in the change in working practices that comes with the transition from the traditional paper-based practice to looking at documents on a screen.  However it is clear from the feedback from users of the Portal that people are quickly adapting the way they work, not least because of the increasing use of technology generally (and not that specific to the introduction of the Portal).  In any event using the Portal does not prevent anyone from printing off all or part of the court bundle if they choose, it merely gives the option to those who wish to use it to limit their paper documentation to only that which they feel they need to properly discharge their role at the hearing.  The paper page with its strategically placed coloured tabs, highlighted text and handwritten notes has not entirely been rendered extinct in the Family Court in South West Wales.

Any new system should make life easier but sometimes there can be a quid pro quo and the benefits of some aspects make other matters more difficult.  If everything is prepared and available electronically then it passes the burden of printing onto advocates mainly as they run the cases in court. However as familiarity grows, it should not be too long before little if any printing need be done at all.

And the benefits?
These are plentiful.  Collation of material directed to be filed, served or disclosed is made simpler as uploading onto the Portal can meet all three requirements.  Similarly dissemination of material is immediate, certain and secure.  Requirements for service of documentation can be met through uploading of material onto the Portal, thereby saving time and ensuring no confusion about whether a document has or has not been filed. 

Organisation of the material is uniform as a central control over the bundle ensures that it is arranged in an organised and paginated fashion and complies with the Practice Direction on Bundles. All of those matters make the jobs of admin staff (where still available) significantly easier, ensure that directions are complied with and that hearings are not delayed through absent or misfiled documentation. 

In addition to those matters is the economic benefit.  Reduced paper costs alone are proving to be significant.  At the moment the Portal has over 60GB of data, which in real terms means about 600,000 pieces of paper were it to be printed out only once.  However most local authorities make multiple copies of bundles and re-allocating this task to end users is resulting in a significant saving of photocopying and stationery costs. In my local authority it has reduced the photocopying in our cases by 84% which is the actual, rather than the estimated, figure and should, when replicated by end users, have a commensurate effect for private practitioners and court administration. But there is the additional cost saving of staff time in copying and preparing the bundles and in the distribution of material with further significant savings on postage and DX costs.

Another observed benefit is that there is now less confusion and much more certainty that all of the parties have all of the documents and so there is a large corresponding reduction in queries resulting from such confusion.  In the pre-trial period updates are immediate and are available to all parties out of hours, which means that (as is common over the weekend before a hearing) if last minute documents and written openings or position statements are filed they can be accessed by all and no longer need to be passed around in a flurry of e-mails which can often go astray. During a hearing the all too familiar story of a request to a witness to turn to, say, page F235 resulting in judge, advocates and witness all landing on different pages and someone wondering what happened to his section F will be a thing of the past.  Hearings will not be held up by the need to send the usher off to photocopy missing pages or by advocates needing to recalculate their pagination in order to give the correct references.   The immediacy of accessibility also allows for compliance with the stipulation to limit Bundles to 350 pages as the electronic construction of a court bundle from the master bundle allows for swift excision of redundant documents and focus upon only the relevant material.  However should additional material be required by reason of some unforeseen development during a hearing, all concerned can easily locate the documentation on the Portal and the case proceed with minimal disruption.  Upon the conclusion of a hearing the papers can be electronically archived, shared with the costs draughtsman in a moment and still be available for quick disclosure when required. Bespoke bundles for on-going therapeutic work, for consideration by the IRO or for any other purpose can be easily prepared, distributed and stored in addition to the court bundle.  

The online access means that for the increasing proportion of people who are able to work remotely such as CAFCASS officers, barristers, experts and judges the ability to have all of the documents without being tied to the office is a significant benefit.  Being able to read relevant case papers whilst in transit without attendant risks to confidentiality or data security, let alone a double hernia from lugging multiple lever arch files, is a particular benefit to those working in a geographically large region where travel is a necessity.

What next?
The move to electronic working has serious scope for continuous improvement in the way that parties interact, integrating online spaces to conduct advocates' meetings, hold conferences between parties and ensure that witnesses are able to view documents when giving evidence in court.  The next step is to increase the scope of the Portal. We also aim to ensure that the use of the Portal grows so that the benefits can be felt by more in the family law community.   

And a final word about participation.........
What we now have in South and West Wales is a simple and effective way of sharing documents online. Andrew and I have, all the way through the project, stuck firmly to the ethos that the Portal is only there to make life easier for people; any difficulties in using it have to be listened to and worked on as fast and as effectively as possible to ensure that the community of users have ownership of the process and are happy to incorporate the Portal into their own way of working and evolve with it. I am happy to say that the way that the users of the Portal have interacted, made suggestions or talked about it has made it a very confirming experience to be part of the process of constructive participation, and as people see the potential for innovations the ideas keep coming.  In South and West Wales the favourable and forward thinking attitude of the judiciary, solicitors and barristers and local authorities has really created an innovation friendly environment where people have been very active in working with the Portal. Considering the positive approach experienced in South West Wales to new and smarter ways of working there is a good chance that we can manage to stay ahead of the inevitable further changes to come. 

If you want further information about the Portal, you can have a look at the site: http://legalportal.net/ where there are some FAQ's and you can see our terms of use.

19/12/14