UK: The Shape of Things to Come – Electronic Working at the RCJ

Last Updated: 6 July 2010
Article by Richard Perkoff

First published in March 2010

Introduction

It may come as news to some that the Court Service has been trialling eFiling at the RCJ since last summer. It is already available in the Commercial Court, the TCC and the Chancery Division with bankruptcy and insolvency "live" from March 2010.

There is a detailed Practice Direction (PD5C) supplementing CPR rule 5.5 which sets out the requirements for and the procedural effect of using eFiling for the trial period. This is intended to be effective from 1 April 2010 and largely replicates the existing Practice Direction for the trial period.

The essence of the pilot is that once proceedings are started by the electronic issue of a Claim Form, an electronic court file is created and documents subsequent to the Claim Form can be filed and added electronically. Since there is no current obligation to participate, a defendant can opt out and continue to use paper. The Court Service will scan in the documents to preserve the integrity of the electronic case file. On request, existing cases can be "back scanned" into the system.

The obvious advantage is that documents can be filed 24/7: a boon for those who have problems with limitation periods. At a recent Commercial Bar Association Seminar we were told that, currently, if a Claim Form is properly completed an email confirming that it has been sealed for service and the copy sealed documents are being returned in about 6 minutes from receipt. However, since filing is only complete when the form has been processed it is not a good idea to leave your electronic submission too late!

Practical Considerations

The COMBAR seminar was attended by barristers, solicitors, Commercial Court judges as well as representatives of the Court Service and a number of points emerged:-

  1. The electronic forms have to be obtained from the Court Service website and do differ slightly from the standard forms. These standard forms must be used. Nothing else is permitted. The advice was to save a blank copy of the downloaded form and work on it.
  2. There is a 30mb limit and only pdf documents are accepted. Adobe Reader 9 is required (no great problem).
  3. A current problem is that there is no online payment system as yet. A separate email will be sent to the solicitor with payment instructions. There were discussions (way above my head) about security issues relating to the proposed online payment system. What was refreshing was the willingness of the Court Service to take onboard these and other comments with a view to ensuring that the system works from the word "go".
  4. When the solicitor receives the sealed Claim Form he will also receive instructions for obtaining other forms online. These are pre-populated with the claim number, names of parties, court etc. which is helpful.
  5. There are alphanumeric "document tickets" which act as keys for retrieving and filing subsequent documents so that, for example, in order for counsel to submit a skeleton argument online he will need the relevant "document ticket". Claimants and each defendant get different "document tickets".
  6. The electronic court file will be accessible to anyone with a "document ticket" at any time. Provision is made for documents that must be kept confidential or restricted to certain parties so that, for example, if an application is made without notice, any electronic filings will not be visible to the respondent.
  7. There is a standard form for filing subsequent documents with a drop down menu to select the class of document, but no write-in facility which is unfortunate since the current list is too short. For example, there is only one heading, "Skeleton Argument", which is appropriate to cover all the documents forming part of counsel's submissions so that the skeleton, chronology, list of authorities, bundle of authorities either all have to be filed together as one document or have to be filed separately, each under the heading "Skelton Argument", which the judges agreed was unhelpful from their point of view.
  8. There is, apparently, a means by which a bundle can be assembled from electronically filed documents and which could be used to obviate this problem, but how was not explained. This highlights what is particularly unsatisfactory: there is no "demo" available which would allow people to play with the various forms and learn how to use the system. A trial can be arranged, but only by using the system itself after pre-notifying the Court Service that it is not a genuine filing. It may be possible for individuals to be given a demonstration at the RCJ, but if this system is expected to be used by thousands of solicitors, proper access to training will be necessary.
  9. Currently, public access to the electronic court file (which is, of course, restricted to those documents which non-parties are permitted to see (CPR Part 5) is only obtainable by use of a "public kiosk" at the RCJ. If eFiling becomes part of court procedure it seems likely that online public access to unrestricted documents will follow. This will make it far easier for the press to search public court documents and increase the risk of litigation being publicised.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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