Legal Practice in the Age of EFS

This article first appeared in the February 2000 Issue of the Singapore Law Gazette published by the Law Society of Singapore.

The Pilot Scheme

On 8 March 1997, Phase 1.0 of the Electronic Filing System (EFS) was launched on a pilot basis. Seven law firms (with the largest number of writs of summons filed in the previous year) and the Housing & Development Board were selected to file court documents relating to actions commenced by writs of summons in the High Court electronically. Feedback from these pilot law firms and the Law Society were subsequently incorporated into the next phase, Phase 1.2, which is scheduled to be launched on 1 March 2000. Phase 1.2 incorporates many enhancements over Phase 1.0: a friendlier user interface and the use of smartcards for better security.

The Electronic Filing System

With EFS, law firms can file court documents electronically to the courts. When Phase 1.2 is launched, filing via EFS will be made compulsory. It is also in Phase 1.2 that hearings, whether in chambers or in open court, will be conducted using only electronic documents as the courts will not have any paper copies to refer to. This is unlike the present Court of Appeal or magistrate’s appeal hearings where both the electronic and paper documents are available.

In subsequent phases, more and more court documents and processes will be added to EFS. Upon completion of the whole project (expected in 2002), virtually all court documents will be filed using EFS.

With EFS, the following services will be available to law firms:

  1. electronic filing service;
  2. electronic extract service;
  3. electronic service of documents service; and
  4. electronic information service.

In addition, a Commissioner for Oaths can (with the appropriate application module) receive documents electronically for deponents to affirm or swear. TheCommissioner for Oaths affixes his/her digital signature tothe duly sworn/affirmed electronic document and transmits the document back to the sender law firm using the Non-Judiciary Commissioner for Oaths module.

EFS is developed and maintained by Singapore Network Services Pte Ltd (SNS). SNS will also be the network service provider of EFS. This means that all transmission of electronic documents to the courts will go through computer servers of SNS.

If a law firm wishes to electronically file documents fromtheir own office, they will have to acquire the EFS Front End Application. SNS has even developed a portable solution using a removable hard disk. Law firms which do not wish to do so will have to file their court documents through the service bureaux. The judiciary has implemented a scheme where law firms which are EFS-equipped can be EFS certified. The certification scheme is administered by SNS. Law firms that are EFS certified can display the EFS logo in their correspondence.

Law firms can obtain up-to-date information on EFS fromthe EFS Website (http://www.efs.com.sg/).

The Impact of EFS on Litigation Practice

Increased cost of litigation

This will be an immediate impact for all parties: the law firms, the litigants and the courts. This may result in litigants seriously considering alternative means of dispute resolution. They may, before commencing court proceedings, turn to the Singapore Mediation Centre or the Multi-Door Courthouse to resolve their disputes. The Law Society is also setting up its own panel of mediators. In due course, a practice of “pre-action protocol” may be implemented, requiring mediation to be considered by parties before commencing an action.

Acceleration of pace of litigation

EFS allows for the almost instantaneous transmission of court documents to the courts and, if so required, the almost instantaneous processing of such documents by the court registry. The work flow in a law office will have to be modified to deal with this. Smaller firms with limited resources are likely to be the most affected by the increased pace. Some will join together either as partnerships or as Group Law Practices. In this way, lawyers can share resources and manpower. Properly implemented, EFS can be a useful tool to help law firms monitor their case files. Integrating EFS with a law office management system will maximise productivity in the litigation department of any law firm. With the faster turn-around, law firms will (in turn) be able to bill faster for their files.

Need for lawyers to be more IT savvy

It is believed that one of the reasons why EFS has generated such a debate and concern among lawyers (even non-litigators)is the realisation that with EFS, lawyers cannot rely on their staff as a buffer against information technology. Lawyers will have to use computers in the courtroom themselves to retrieve required electronic documents. Relying on others to do this will not be effective since litigation is often very fluid and a good litigator changes the flow of his or her arguments to address the concerns of the judge. His staff may not realise that there has been a change in the flow of argument and may retrieve the wrong document. Much time will then be spent correcting this and the opportunity to “make the point” will be lost. If the litigator is familiar with the EFS system, he can take advantage of one of the greatest benefits of using electronic documents, that is, the ability of the system to search for specific documents in a very large database of documents. If an IT-savvy litigator in the course of his argument realises that there are certain documents which are relevant, he can make use of the EFS search facility to search and retrieve those documents quickly.

Filing of court documents 24 hours a day from anywhere in Singapore

There is, in fact, no technical reason why court documents cannot be filed from any country in the world with the appropriate telecommunication infrastructure. In due time, with Singapore becoming more integrated into the world’s economy and with the regionalisation and globalisation of Singapore law firms, this ability will be a distinct advantage. Imagine a situation where the overseas office of a Singapore law firm is able to take instructions from a foreign-based client to commence an action in Singapore, prepares the necessary documents based on these instructions and files them in court. The overseas office can retrieve documents sent by the court or filed by the opposing party just by dialing into the SNS mailbox. Information about any court file can also be retrieved by the overseas office.

De-centralisation of legal practice

As rentals in the prime business district increase, EFS can be a means of controlling the rental expenses of a law firm. With 24 hours filing, law firms can employ shift staff to maximise usage of prime office space. With the ability to file from anywhere in Singapore, law firms can consider shifting the “back-room operations” to cheaper rental locations outside the CBD. Working from home could become more acceptable. One day in the future, the electronic law office will be born.

Obstacles to Maximum Usage of EFS

There are, however, two major obstacles that have to beovercome:

  1. the cost to law firms acquiring the EFS system and integrating it with their internal law office management system; and
  2. “technophobia” that exists amongst certain lawyers.

It is expected that in due time, the costs of equipment and software required for EFS will be reduced. It is already happening. When Phase 1.0 was launched in 1997, the expected cost to a law firm was $20,000 to $30,000. It is now between

$6,000 to $12,000. In time, law firms will look at the cost of acquiring and maintaining an EFS system as part and parcel of the overheads of litigation practice, just as telefax and photocopying machines are now. As explained earlier, if properly implemented, EFS can be a cost control tool for law firms.

On “technophobia”, lawyers are no different from the general population. Although there are exceptions, the “technophobia” group tends to be the more senior lawyers. It is important for the profession that this very important group (with their years of experience) are not “lost” to the profession. Steps are, and must be, taken to assist this important group. Training is a solution: the assistance of more IT-savvy lawyers is another. The latter has an additional consequence in the cross-exchange of experiences that will benefit both groups of lawyers.

Conclusion

EFS cannot be looked at in isolation. It is only a part of the trend towards a “knowledge-based economy” in Singapore. E-filing for practising certificates for lawyers, e-filing tothe Registry of Companies and Businesses, e-stamping at the Stamp Office and other government departments in Singapore moving towards electronic means of carrying out transactions are examples of this trend. EFS has made lawyers examine information technology and these trends more closely since EFS has such a direct impact on legal practice. Lawyers have very little choice but to adopt IT tools for their practice, otherwise they will be left behind in this fast changing legal environment. Fortunately, most lawyers are adapting. They are moving into e-commerce. They are taking advantage of various on-line research tools. Lawyers are using laptops and hand-held devices in court and in their practice. In the long run, this trend can only bebeneficial to Singapore.