Hi-tech changes that are dragging the law into the 21st century

E-learning for law students and a scheme allowing pleas by e-mail are just two new initiatives designed to bring the law up to date, writes Robert Verkaik
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Trainee solicitors and barristers are to be offered the chance to qualify by e-mail using a new scheme that will create virtual classrooms for law students.

The College of Law, which is offering the new courses, predicts that the initiative will "radically change" the way lawyers are trained and allow more students to "earn while they learn".

The trainee lawyers will use websites and e-mail tuition to follow the courses on-line.

But students planning to switch to the Legal Practice Course and Bar Vocational Course in the belief that it will mean the end of all those tiresome law lectures will be sadly disappointed. E-mail learning will never be able replace the way some lawyers' skills are taught ­ for example, advocacy and negotiation always require classroom tuition.

Professor Nigel Savage, chief executive of the college, explains that the new technology "will enable us to concentrate on what we do best ­ small-group learning and face-to-face individual teaching backed up by the latest electronic communication technology".

Law firms, says Professor Savage, are already using the internet to train their lawyers in-house. He says: "We now need to move much more quickly and integrate e-learning into the mainstream of our activities both in the UK and abroad."

The virtual classrooms, which will be open 365 days of the year and 24 hours a day, will also help students learn at their own pace, the college claims.

The College of Law has signed a £500m agreement with AdVal, a company that specialises in providing education for businesses, to introduce the courses.

"Our initial agreement will open up access to the legal profession to many more students who need to combine a job, part-time or full-time, with the vocational course," adds Professor Savage.

Recently, a number of young lawyers and their firms have been badly caught out by the misuse of e-mail technology, suggesting that they are not as IT-proficient as they should be.

Last month a law firm began disciplinary action after a spoof e-mail announcing the murder of a young secretary was circulated to staff and clients.

The e-mail, purporting to come from the personnel department, falsely stated that a secretary in the Hong Kong office of Herbert Smith had been murdered, and then dispassionately gave the names of two replacements. Not until a week later did staff realise they had been the victims of a hoax and that the woman was alive and well.

In December last year, six lawyers at another City law firm were disciplined over a lewd e-mail sent by one of their girlfriends. Bradley Chait forwarded a private e-mail from his girlfriend, Claire Swire, 26, a public relations executive, to four friends in his office at Norton Rose. Within hours, gossip about Ms Swire's sexual enjoyment had spread to millions of internet users around the world.

The new IT tuition at the College of Law might help lawyers think twice before making professional gaffes when using their e-mail systems.

The Government is also keen to use developments in e-mail to speed up justice. Under a scheme to help bring the courts into the 21st century, defendants who find appearing in court a bit of a trial will be able to plead guilty by e-mail. By allowing judges to accept pleas over the internet, the Government hopes that thousands of hours of court time will be saved.

But judges will not be able to pass sentence online ­ the guilty must still appear in court.

The criminal justice system of the future was unveiled at Kingston Crown Court last month, where many of the innovations are to be piloted, including the first electronic link between a court and a prison.

Inmates at Wandsworth Prison will be able to remain in their cells for simple remand and directions hearings, which can be granted over the internet by a judge. This, the Government hopes, will help improve court security and reduce escapes.

Under the Government's plans, the courts of the future will resemble airport departure lounges with state-of-the-art indicator boards notifying witnesses when they are to be called to testify and providing a running commentary on the progress of the case.

Inside the courtroom, evidence will be displayed on computer screens and the jury will be summonsed to court over the internet.

However, there are no plans for courts to advertise the cases to the visiting public by presenting the "sexier details" of the trials on the indicator boards. Nor will there be an update on how the jury's deliberations are going.

But Kingston's £500,000 hi-tech courtroom will lead the way for the modernisation of all 78 Crown Court centres throughout England and Wales by 2005.

One day, law students of the future may be able to qualify as lawyers and go on to win their first case without ever stepping inside a lecture theatre or a court room.