To e, or not to e: Electronic v Paper Case Management
Paperwork: don’t you just love it? Actually, yes we do at our innocence project. If we’re going to make any sort of progress in our case reviews, having access to a complete set of case papers is vital.
Getting hold of everything we need isn’t easy, however, so paperwork gives us a collective headache. In the early weeks, sometimes months, of taking on a new case, our problem often is locating and retrieving files from previous solicitors, causing delays in getting students started. This is replaced by a different challenge when, occasionally, we take delivery of voluminous case papers. Space is often at a premium at universities, including ours. But setting aside storage, confidentiality and data protection issues, simply how to manage the case papers is a regular discussion point.
Add to this the mighty migraine that is the missing papers problem: it is not uncommon to receive multiple boxes of documents but some key papers are simply absent without explanation. Sometimes the case papers will have done the rounds from various solicitors’ offices and barristers’ chambers, to the clients and their family, via Timbuktu, before reaching us. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, we can’t locate missing documentation. So we are starting from a point of disadvantage.
Those familiar with this area of work will be aware of the additional problem that presents itself in the form of the current decision in the case of Kevin Nunn, which decided that the time for disclosure of evidence was at trial and not post-appeal. This translates into creating an even more uneven playing field for those maintaining innocence wishing to access documentation or physical exhibits, for example for re-testing.
We hope that common sense and fair play will prevail when the Supreme Court makes its decision in coming months. In the meantime, we often have to persevere with one arm tied behind our backs, with students seeing for themselves the man-made hurdles that litter this area of work.
The amount of paperwork each innocence project has will vary hugely. On one of our cases alone we have 64 lever-arch files. I have seen a case at another university that runs into hundreds of files. Faced with the sight of several forests converted into paper, the innocence project supervisor can be forgiven for uttering the word ‘nightmare’.
It raises important issues for us. First, it is not possible for one supervising member of staff to read each and every sheet of paper – that goes without saying, unless we factor in several years for this task. We must remember that most of our colleagues are doing innocence project work as a small part of their overall portfolio, and many do not get proper time allowance for the time it takes them.
Even if it were possible to read all files, how would someone note and remember what they have read, and where? Lawyers learn to hone in on key documents. In the vast majority of cases each and every document on a file will not be read; that simply isn’t practicable. But with the unused material often forming a fertile hunting ground for new issues, we have to wonder how many more miscarriages of justice might be unearthed if sufficient time could be dedicated to meticulously combing through the detail of each case, which is what we aspire to do.
So, if you are running an innocence project, you need to be aware of the paperwork challenges. How do you direct students in what they read? How do you ensure that questions they raise are properly recorded and dealt with? How do you avoid a new cohort of students going over the same ground when the original student team has moved on?
Last year at Cardiff, after years of paper-based casework, we leapt into the technological world and started properly to get to grips with an electronic case management system, CaseMap, which is provided free of charge to university innocence projects by LexisNexis, courtesy of Tom Laidlaw. Some 90 students and a small office crammed from floor to ceiling with shelves bursting with folders and boxes of case documents were evidence, if such were needed, that our project had expanded exponentially since its first year.
We had been introduced properly to CaseMap by Jacintha Hodgson of Hassnet Ltd, an evidence and document management company. Their website told us what we had found out for ourselves by default. ‘The sheer volume of information in complex cases often makes it difficult for a lawyer to prepare a coherent strategy or to organise arguments and present them in an effective manner. Too often the information you want or wish you had in your case is buried in boxes, a mountain of file folders or on a multitude of legal pads where you’ve made questions or notes.’ That was us.
How could we resist Jacintha’s generous pro bono offer to ‘engage with legal teams to bring order to this chaos, using IT to create organised evidence files for easy retrieval and analysis moving through to demonstrate how to organise case preparation’? We were convinced. We found a willing volunteer from our student body, another of our intrepid band of students who start with us in their second year, then bitten by the innocence project bug they stay with us. Lydia Painter was until recently an LLM student, who has developed excellent and varied skills as a result of her work on our project over four years. This is Lydia’s story about setting up Casemap at Cardiff and training our students to use it.
‘CaseMap acts as a database which can store all case documents. Timelines and chronologies can be developed within the programmes too and students can focus on specific issues during their case analyses. With Jacintha’s invaluable expertise and supervision, a couple of law graduates spent a summer developing a comprehensive user manual for the software programme. This 500+ page document details every aspect of CaseMap.
In the last two years our Cardiff project took on several new cases. Our eagerness to expose students to advanced case management systems and our limited space encouraged us to take the decision to set up five cases on CaseMap.
Many law firms that use case management systems will probably agree that the initial process of setting up a case on an electronic system takes time and effort. Scanning in dozens of folders of documents for one case can take weeks. Transferring these electronic documents to CaseMap is, however, a quick process and setting up the database for casework is a simple task.
Given students’ extensive use of computers for their studies, teaching them how to use CaseMap wasn’t too much of a challenge. The majority of students understood the nature of the programme and how to use it to investigate their case within their first training session. Two hours of training sessions were provided for each group and the students were then able to use the database for casework. With technical support on hand, though rarely required, many students used CaseMap on a weekly basis to conduct casework.
In the early stages there was some debate as to how exactly to undertake casework of an innocence project nature using CaseMap. After a year of casework on five of our cases, however, it is apparent that students are finding the programme useful and the quality of casework is improved. The database allows you to link people, issues, documents and facts with each other, so keeping track of the various and, inevitably complicated, aspects of a miscarriage of justice case, is much easier. Students can review individual documents, add comments to the database and print out reports that include these notes. This then allows caseworkers to add this report to their full conclusions which illustrates what documents they have examined and what notes they have made about them.
We are positive that we have taken a step forward in using this technology and we hope others will be encouraged to follow. The time taken to set up a case on CaseMap is worth the outcome. It is hopeful that if all goes well other innocence projects will also join us in using CaseMap to aid their casework.’
Our thanks go to Lydia for her efforts.
What do I think of Casemap? It’s a considerable investment of time, but the students seem keen and comfortable with it, unlike me, blessed as I am with an aversion to new technology. To be fair, I have not been able to invest the time I know would be needed to get to grips with it. I don’t run the day-to-day casework myself, so it’s less important for me. I can see that it appears to be a Rolls Royce of systems, and that students learn a huge amount from seeing such case management systems in practice because they will invariably be using such systems if they go into legal practice.
Lydia helped to create the heavyweight 500+ page manual with Hassnet Ltd, and we are happy to share this with other educational providers. It might also be useful to compare notes on innocence project case management, so if colleagues in other universities are interested in exchanging ideas, you know where we are!
Professor Julie Price is head of pro bono at Cardiff Law School, and director of Cardiff Law School Innocence Project; Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow. Julie’s background is as a solicitor and Legal Practice Course tutor. Her voluntary positions include being a founding trustee of the Access to Justice Foundation's Welsh Regional Support Trust, Reaching Justice Wales. She is a steering group member of LawWorks Cymru, and on the advisory group for the Centre for Criminal Appeals and FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers). Julie's articles are her personal views (not those of Cardiff University and/or Cardiff School of Law and Politics)