Digitising justice: The case for e-bundles in family courts
It costs local authorities on average £256,530 and 8,019 hours each year to prepare, circulate and destroy documentation for family court hearings.
These cases are brought under the Children Act 1989 and involve local authorities applying for court orders to protect a child in need. As with any court case, documentation must be collated and shared with necessary parties in order for the hearing to run smoothly. These documents are presented in a lever arch folder and are termed ‘court bundles’.
The process of making and sharing court bundles is an absolute necessity but it also takes a significant amount of time for local authorities’ staff, who up until now, had to print, manually collate and then securely deliver the bundles for multiple parties (such as the magistrate, lawyers and social workers). Additionally, whenever changes are made between hearings – and typically there can be five or six hearings per case – the bundles have to re-produced and re-distributed.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that this has been identified as a costly, inefficient and unsecure method for sharing case files and documentation. With the drive to digital courtrooms, moreover, court bundles have become a target area for improvement for both local authorities and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).
Why do e-bundles make sense?
Adopting e-bundles will inevitable require change not only for council staff, but also for HMCTS and any other involved parties, for example social workers. Yet there are considerable benefits from doing so.
1. Cost and efficiency savings. As an end-to-end process, local authorities can save on average £1,282.65 and 38.3 hours per bundle, which over a 12-month period with an average of 200 cases adds up to £256,530 and 8,019 hours.
Financially, these are mainly a result of reduced costs for printing (e.g. ink / toner, paper and envelopes) and secure courier services (either DX or recorded delivery). In terms of time savings, staff benefit from not creating multiple physical copies of documents, constructing and forwarding the bundles, ensuring bundles are returned and destroyed post-hearing, and re-compiling one complete copy for archiving.
With e-bundles, all staff need to do is create one full electronic copy and then simply make any amendments as the hearing progresses, and then load the first and any subsequent versions into the secure platform used for sharing the bundle. Recipients can be notified immediately via email that a new bundle is ready for them to view.
2. Data protection. Statistics show that sensitive information is put at considerable risk once it is printed. The threat stems primarily from human error (e.g. sending files to an incorrect recipient or accidental loss of files) and carelessness (e.g. files left unattended or not securely locked away), but also includes malicious intent (e.g. briefcases stolen, often regardless of its contents).
Sending court bundles electronically can immediately reduce this risk. Using an encrypted platform, local authorities can ensure this information is protected within this environment. In addition, they can apply further controls – for example, restricting one or all users from downloading the file and preventing them from sharing the bundle with unapproved third parties. Identity verification mechanisms, for example via email or SMS, and multi-layer authentication (e.g. password protection) can also provide additional assurance that only intended recipients are accessing files.
3. Secure destruction and archiving. Once a court case has ended, local authority staff spend nine hours doing ‘post-hearing admin’ – put simply: tracking down and often manually collecting bundles they shared prior to the hearing, and then shredding the documents contained in them. Staff are also charged with ensuring the local authority has one complete copy that can be securely archived.
Over the course of a single year, this adds up to approximately 1,800 man hours.
Using e-bundles, however, in a matter of minutes, staff can expire users’ access to the file and then the final version can automatically provide a copy for electronic archiving or be printed for physical archiving, as dictated by industry regulation and organisational best practice.
Digital transformation for justice
UK Government are committed to using digital to transform the justice system, aiming to streamline and join up the community, and provide citizens with swifter, fairer justice. The adoption of e-bundles is an inevitable part of this. Consequently, local authorities now need to be reviewing the above considerations and making their own case for the software they’ll use to replace physical court bundles.