Legal proceedings slowly move online

Warring parties in litigation cases will soon swap and update legal documents and evidence online but the jury is still out on when, if ever, the first true 'e-case' will be.

Warring parties in litigation cases will soon swap and update legal documents and evidence online but the jury is still out on when, if ever, the first true “e-case” will be.

Several law firms have begun offering internet access to legal documents and Chapman Tripp has launched an electronic service which allows parties to examine and update commercial due diligence papers over an extranet.

Chapman Tripp is soon to begin using its Dataspace service for parties to swap information such as briefs of evidence, witness statements and pleadings in the discovery phase of litigation – that is, when parties must make information available to each other before a trial reaches the courts.

But lawyers say both the lack of certainty attached to digital signature technology and the need for face-to-face negotiations means a totally online case is not likely in the close future.

“We are talking about a stage where people are inspecting information and analysing information,” says Chapman Tripp chief executive Alastair Carruthers. “Even in this environment we are not transacting entirely over the web.”

Chapman Tripp IT manager Jason Cruickshanks says there are still some steps such as signing a merger contract or facing a court that people will do in person. “I don’t see the traditional end of the process changing in the medium term."

In the US some out-of-court arbitration cases have been settled online, but lawyers point out that this is only where parties have wanted a quick resolution.

Chapman Tripp will use Dataspace to prepare a database of court papers for several complex litigation cases over the next month. The end result will be a series of computers in the courtroom displaying the statements as they are needed.

Chapman’s 14-strong IT team built the Dataspace system in-house earlier this year using a Microsoft platform and secure socket layer (SSL) technology and incorporating Adobe Acrobat to scan documents. Clients use browsers with digital certificates to access each case’s site.

Chapman’s litigation principal Pheroze Jagose says the court system has been supportive of the move following some Australian courts formalising electronic procedures. Chapman Tripp built the system for client Carter Holt Harvey to swap papers amongst parties in its due diligence phase of sales of several of its divisions. This use still resulted in the printing off and signing by hand of the final contracts.

Auckland software development and training company OwlCentral, which works in conjunction with law firm Hesketh Henry on digital document technology, believes digital signatures are a far-off, “next generation” technology for the resolution of court or commercial cases. Director David Cam says local companies are as far advanced as in the US where issues such people being able to claim they have received different electronic versions or claiming fraudulent signatures are still being debated.

OwlCentral launched several months ago and is in the process of patenting its technology, which constructs documents such as property leases, company constitutions and wills by asking a series of questions. The technology alters its line of questions depending on which options are chosen, inserts special provisions and emails drafts and final results. Companies access the system, which is encrypted with 128-bit level security, over the internet. OwlCentral is negotiating to licence its technology to a New York-based commodity company and says it is soon to close a $1m to $1.5m round of capital raising to fund its expansion into Australia.

Cam says his company’s products can replace days of mundane, repetitive work for lawyers. “Lawyers will go back to what they are trained to do – giving advice,” Cam says.

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