Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

The Swami

I recently responded to a survey that asked, among other things, what drivers might affect Paper On Demand becoming close to universal in courts by the year 2025. Given the difficulty of predicting what is likely to happen next week, attempting to make predictions over ten years out seems to be hypothetical in the extreme. Nevertheless, the exercise has some very useful attributes.

For one thing, it allows consideration of what happens after today’s current problems and challenges have been overcome. Quite naturally, we tend to focus on immediate, existing, and short-term barriers (and benefits). Things like anachronistic court rules, implementation expense, resistance to change, and so on dominate our planning.

Likewise, short term benefits – one of the most urgent being financial – tend to be the major areas of focus. Longer- term benefits, such as improved public service, also get attention. All of these factors are motivators that powerfully support the case for migration to paper on demand.

But the existence of good reasons does not always translate to the obvious result. In this case, beyond the known benefits, what reasons, if any, exist that make us believe that paper on demand might be ubiquitous in courts by 2025?

Donning my Swami turban, I came up with the following points:

• Laws and public expectations regarding access, searchability, selective and flexible redaction, and security (both existential and content) of public records will force courts – and all governmental (and most private) entities to maintain all records, including documents, electronically.

• Cost advantages, which are currently arithmetical (up to double the cost of implementation), are rapidly being realized to be geometric (several times the cost of implementation). In the very near future, they will be seen to be exponential (ten times or more of the cost of implementation). Others may disagree with this prediction; I would point out that the savings continue indefinitely into the future. Also, I believe that the changes will be that significant. In fact, I think every current estimate of savings will prove to be too conservative; but we’ll see.

The key driver here will be automated workflow, which is simply not practical with physical documents at anything like the scale of electronic documents. The efficiencies enabled by electronic document management with workflow will be disproportionately due to operational efficiencies made possible versus direct, document-related savings (like storage space, materials, labor-free access, etc.).

• Existent and emergent technologies will increasingly require electronic documents in order to be used, in the same way that online banking requires internet access or printers require electricity. A court still utilizing physical documents in 2025 will be like a court with no electricity in 1940, or a court with no telephones in 1970, or a court with no internet in 2013. It won’t be acceptable.

• Standards, already coalescing, will be mature and ubiquitous.

This list could easily be much longer. And, much as I’d like to think I will have a perfect prediction record, one or more of them may well be wrong. The great thing about surveys like this is that they generate disparate opinions and allow for reasoned discussion and debate. The point of speculating on the farther-out future is not to know in advance what will happen (other than death and taxes, generally impossible) but to get a sense for where things are headed. I for one will be very interested to see the opinions across the community. The consensus will be interesting; and I’m guessing that most will agree the question is not “Whether”, but “When and How” courts become universally paper on demand. As far as the drivers are concerned (as well as the longer-term implications, which I’ll discuss in a future post), if the past is any indication, the more outrageous the prediction, the more likely it is to come true.

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