Swansea Family Court hears child care cases for seven counties in southwest Wales. For each hearing, all parties share case information in a “court bundle”; traditionally a set of lever arch files, each containing 350 sheets of paper.
As Carmarthenshire County Council Childcare Solicitor Gawain Williams explains, “An average bundle might be two or three files, but for a serious case, it can be much more. The worst I remember recently was 36 lever arch files—over 12,000 pages.”
The bundles can contain documents, images of critical evidence, X-rays, and video or sound recordings of interviews and other events.
“You need high-quality color copies that don’t vary in color or tone because these are images that need to be reviewed by various experts,” Williams says. “Each copy must be as clear as the original.”
Each file must be paginated, indexed, copied, and distributed, usually by courier, to all the parties involved: the judge, solicitors and barristers, parents and guardians, doctors and other experts. Subsequent amendments or additions must then be managed for all copies and parties throughout the case.
The time and cost of administration were enormous. Hearings were frequently delayed by missing or inconsistent pages and security was a big concern. Physical documents are easily lost or stolen. “In one case, a social worker had a car accident, and the papers were strewn across the M4 motorway,” Williams says.
Williams and Andrew Morris, the legal services business manager from Swansea Council, worked together to develop a better solution. They chose Citrix ShareFile to digitize case bundles and create the South Wales Shared Services Portal.
“Bundles are like living entities,” Williams explains. “They are working documents updated by many parties most of the time. With many of the other services we looked at, you could only send a one-off PDF, but that’s dead immediately. From the moment you send it, it’s historic.”
We have reduced photocopying by 84 percent. Before ShareFile, in our small department alone, we were making a million copies per year,” Williams says. “By sharing everything electronically, we save so much admin time. We now have millions of documents online—terabytes of data.”
Williams is happy with the time and cost savings but, he says, “the immediacy, improved workflow and speed are actually far more important.”
Now, any time there’s an update to a case bundle, it’s available immediately. Each party in the case always has the same view, and cases are no longer delayed because of disputes over mismatched files. Audio and video files are easily shared and all users are assured of consistently accurate reproduction of critical evidence.
“Our ShareFile portal has changed the way we work,” Williams explains. “It’s available and up-to-date 24 hours a day. Barristers work in the middle of the night; judges read court papers at the weekends, when they’re not in hearings, so having access to a live, shared bundle is extraordinarily important. Judges are already saying they don’t need paper bundles so much. Instead of bringing 15 lever arch files to court, we can simply bring a laptop.”
Given the sensitive nature of child welfare cases, security and confidentiality are paramount.
“Which is more secure, a system that is encrypted, permission-based, and regularly monitored, or a box of paper in the back of someone’s car?” Williams says.
ShareFile’s granular level of permission controls has enabled Swansea to expand the roles that have access to bundles. With the correct authorizations, independent social workers and medical experts can have access to appropriate individual documents, such as medical records.
The portal team is also using features that discourage copying or printing to Litigants in Person.
Looking ahead, Williams is keen to expand the portal both geographically, to make it nationwide, and to a wider pool of agencies. As he says, “There is enormous value in ubiquity and the community of childcare experts we’ve built up within our ShareFile directory.”
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The cost and time saving is brilliant, but the immediacy, improved workflow, and speed are actually far more important.