Law: Justice will be done in the virtual courtroom

The Internet will revolutionise the law, argues Laura Hopwood in her winning entry in The Independent/College of Law essay competition
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THE CLICHe goes that the law in this country is "like the Ritz Hotel - available to anyone who can afford it". Proposals, led by Lord Woolf, are set to change all that, by modernising legal services and making the law more accessible for ordinary people. Legal advice will become available via the Internet.

Ultimately the opportunity will be there for clients to take legal action without consulting a solicitor. How will lawyers compete with free advice? What will "modernised" court rooms of the next century be like?

If legal advice ultimately becomes available at low or no cost via the world wide web, this would certainly succeed in improving accessibility for the consumer.

Much "routine" legal work (such as drafting standard documents and agreements) is to become an on-line product. It may not even be necessary to own a personal computer in order to have access.

It is suggested that computer "kiosks" at terminals in shopping malls could be loaded with legal software. It is hoped that "affordable, jargon- free help" will be at the fingertips of "large numbers of clients".

Do future lawyers need to feel threatened that this IT-based legal service will take the bread and butter from conventional law firms? The Government proposals suggest that there is a vast "middle ground" of people who at present have little or no access to the civil justice system in this country. They are too affluent to gain assistance through legal aid, but not super- affluent enough to pursue a court case.

The new legal "products" will be aimed at this section of the population, who at present trouble their local solicitor very seldom. Internet legal services may well establish an entirely new market of clients for legal advice.

For example, if you are concerned about your neighbour's trees overshadowing your garden, you may wonder each morning whether you could do anything about them. You may not wish to pay through the nose to ask a solicitor, though, so never know. If however, the information was there on your PC at home, or in the local library, you might be more inclined to find out.

However carefully researched and marketed the legal software is on a given subject, it may well create work for lawyers in subsequent actions. (Although probably not in the case of the trees). It remains an irrefutable fact of human life that our problems have the capacity to become more complex and demanding than anyone could ever have anticipated. If a client uses an internet legal service or a software package in a shopping mall in order to prepare an agreement, a problem with that agreement may result. The situation will inevitably arise where the disgruntled client can no longer find a solution programmed into the system he or she is using.

Rather than threatening existing legal services, it could well transpire that the Internet revolution will generate a new influx of clients. Personal relations and transactions get ever more complex with the use of new technologies. This can only generate more law. Certainly, the Woolf report suggests that legal services in the future will be sold in a higher volume at lower prices. Legal practices will move away from a high-cost service billed by the hour. Self-respecting lawyers will need to establish a way of working through a larger number of cases whilst striving to maintain healthy client relationships.

Office IT systems will be tested to the full. The choice of hardware and software products by each firm will become an ever more important decision. More IT specialists will appear in law firms. Choosing an IT system from the great variety of products on the market is not going to get any easier, as ever more products become available. At the moment, key software products for litigation and other departments are being developed. Their inter-compatibility and staying power in the face of change will play a significant role in the success of firms in the future. Firms who invest in the best technology may well flourish.

Taking the IT revolution even further, the reforms propose the introduction of the "virtual court room". The aim is to reduce the amount of paper work consumed by today's courts.

It should also make court hearings more focused. (Happily for the trainee litigators of the future, this will mean significantly less time spent bonding with the photocopier.) With the judge and counsel sitting before a monitor, evidence will be displayed at the touch of a button. It may well take time until the judiciary fully trust that the monitors will not let them down at an important stage in the case. However, once these systems are established, more information will be at the fingertips of the court. Technology will reduce the time and resources spent in preparation, as well as improving the clarity of evidence on display.

Perhaps most radically, as part of the whole ethos of "modernisation", reform of the legal system challenges the need for the conventional trappings of the court room. It is more difficult to picture the IT revolution being accepted here in the court-room, than in the commercially driven worlds of the solicitor's office, or the barrister's chambers. And yet it does seem rather incongruous to picture the high-tech Woolfian judge sitting at his or her PC, ISDN lines buzzing and CD-Roms clicking, all the while sporting the traditional uniform and habits of centuries.

How far the court-room will modernise following the introduction of new technology will be an interesting feature of law in the next century.

Not only judges, but also all future lawyers will spend a good deal of time learning new computer systems. Hopefully we will be able to rely on the training that we will be given. It's an obvious point, but it is vital that all our employers realise that investing in IT only works as long as all concerned know how to use it. This is best achieved through intensive training courses.

In larger firms it is more common to have in-house IT and training departments. Some regional firms pool these kinds of resources. It makes little difference how the training is organised as long as we can benefit from it.

Inevitably, we will come to rely more and more heavily on our computers as we communicate by e-mail, consult our diary software, research cases via CD-Rom and the Internet, and perhaps transfer documentation and files by ISDN. Computers will provide access to vast quantities of information impossible to house at any one firm. Access to clients and counsel will be more flexible, owing to lap tops, improved telephone and video conferencing systems, and eventually, state-of-the-art link ups with clients and the court.

Adapting to the modernisation of the legal system proposed by the Woolf reforms will be a process that evolves through the system over many years.

Gradually, many people will feel more confident to research the legal implications of their civil disputes via the Internet, or CD-Rom. In-house IT systems will be vital in helping lawyers to compete with the wide range of free or "packaged" legal advice, which will come on to the market. The technology should make legal practice and the court-room more efficient, and help to reduce the cost of legal action. Eventually the civil justice system of the next century will adapt to cater for people from all kinds of financial background. Unlike, I suspect, the Ritz Hotel.