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How Paul Sachs’ start-up CaseLines was awarded a multimillion-pound contract and masterminded a step change in our justice system

In one corner: a tiny team of entrepreneurs working from home. In the other: multinational IT companies with thousands of employees. At stake: a massive government contract. Who wins the pitch? ‘Goliath kills David’ doesn’t make for a great article does it? So, it won’t surprise you to learn that the tiny team takes the prize. In this story, ‘David’ is Paul Sachs, founder of CaseLines, who felled Goliath in 2015 to secure a Ministry of Justice contract to effectively digitise the law courts of England and Wales.

The scale of this task cannot be overstated. Paul sums it up: “The amount of paper saved by CaseLines, if stacked from the ground up, would reach the height of the London Shard – every four days.” The CaseLines digital-evidence system is driving perhaps the biggest logistical change to the British legal system ever seen. Which makes it all the more impressive that Paul convinced the Ministry of Justice to award the contract to his start-up; not a multinational. So how did he do it?

The answer, in short, is by demonstrating deeper customer knowledge than his competitors. Indeed, the CaseLines story is a great lesson for any entrepreneur who feels intimidated by the established competition: it shows that in-depth market understanding – coupled with iron determination – can take you to the summit. Size and reputation matter not.

For CaseLines, getting under the skin of its customers in a very serious way was critical to winning the breakthrough contract. After all, attempting to digitise the British justice system is not a job you can waltz into armed with a bit of IT knowledge, a copy of ‘Law For Dummies’ and some strong coffee.

Paul, an accomplished coder who’s been building computer programmes since he was 13, was off to a good start by having lawyers in his family. It was while talking to them that he realised that the British justice system was in desperate need of a digitised system. “I’d reached the end of a project and was searching for a new focus, so I asked the lawyers in my family to outline the problems they faced,” says Paul. “They told me that paper evidence bundles – the reams of paper on which every element of each case is stored – were a complete nightmare. I also knew that the Cabinet Office was on a mission to go paperless. Those two key bits of information set me off.”

Paul quickly realised that the move from paper to digital within the law courts would be complex and sensitive. That’s why it hadn’t happened sooner. “Legal processes are finely balanced,” explains Paul. “It’s an adversarial system between two sides, so bringing in any new way of working risks altering the balance. Clearly that’s not acceptable. Any new technology would need to replicate traditional tried-and-tested processes and require participants to behave in exactly the same way as before.”

Building a new IT system that could replace the traditional paper bundles required detailed research. “I made friends with judges, barristers and lawyers and asked lots of questions,” Paul says. “How do you work? What do you need? What works? What doesn’t? I spent lots of time with them. You have to immerse yourself in a sector to understand how it really works. My wife didn’t get much of my time and didn’t get much of the dining room table either – it was usually covered with my work.”

Paul did his research while working full time as an IT consultant. Eventually, though, he gave up his paid work to focus on his all-consuming project. His task then became an all-or-nothing entrepreneurial gamble as he piled everything into building a new system for the law courts. “There were tough moments,” says Paul. “For four years we had very little money. We had to borrow from our family and friends to keep going and ran up credit card bills. But we felt strongly we were on the right track. We were not going to let go.”

What sustained Paul was the resolute support of his wife, plus their faith. He explains: “Everyone who builds a business sometimes wakes up at 4am in dread fear,” he says. “I’m no exception. We all experience self-doubt. When that happened to me, I turned to the Bible. I became a Christian in 2005 and it has inspired and guided me. When I am low, reading the Bible changes my perspective – it encourages me to take action for positive outcomes and puts doubt in its place. My wife Bev’s faith is also incredibly strong. Without her I’d be nowhere.”

Towards the end of 2013, Paul engaged with the Ministry of Justice for the first time when it invited companies to attend a workshop to discuss paperless solutions. “I told the Ministry of Justice I’d be keeping my ideas to myself during that meeting,” Paul says. “I said I’d already built a system and didn’t want to share it with other suppliers. After that workshop there were a series of meetings with individual suppliers. First 12 potential partners were in the frame, then six, then two, and finally we won the contract in March 2015.

At that time CaseLines was basically my wife and me working from our West Sussex dining room. Our competitor in the final round had 68,000 employees. We won because the judges asked two key questions about how to handle courtroom evidence. I was able to give the answer and our competitor was not. We knew everything we needed to know about the technology and – crucially – everything we needed to know about justice. My advice to any entrepreneur who wants to succeed is: understand your customer.”

The best way to get to know your customer, of course, is to demonstrate intense passion for your chosen area. Paul has real passion and is strongly driven by the idea of improving justice and thereby making the world a better place. You may wonder how an IT system can achieve such a heroic goal. Its inventor explains: “In England and Wales there are now more early guilty pleas thanks to CaseLines. That’s because digital evidence is now available more quickly than paper evidence was, so the defence gets to see it earlier and so can advise appropriately. The converse is true too. If you’re innocent and accused of a crime, you see the evidence earlier. That gives you a better run up to your defence. The number of Crown Court hearings has reduced by 50% so far as a result.

“Here’s another story,” continues Paul. “The Chief Justice in South Africa is on record as saying that justice there would be improved if they had a digital evidence-management system. If you are in jail in South Africa and want out, it has been known for wealthy prisoners to apply for appeal while bribing a policeman to lose their paper evidence bundle. When the case comes to appeal and the evidence is missing, the case is dismissed and they go free. We are working with the South African government to stop that from happening. Justice is a beautiful subject. I love the thought of making it better.”

The future looks extremely bright for CaseLines. It is now used by all criminal courts in England and Wales, and is being rolled out to the family courts too. Paul and his team, now twenty strong, also have their sights set on digitising the law courts in a further five countries. “We’re lucky to have the chance to make a tangible difference to justice systems across the world,” says Paul, who chooses to make a difference in another way too: by using some of his company’s profits to support several charities both at home and abroad.

His entrepreneurial journey began with just an idea, a dining-room office and a talent for computer coding. He then took the time and effort to understand the inner workings of the justice system better than his competitors, before showing the faith and self-belief to build his own product. And he did all that before securing a single customer or client. However, his actions convinced the Ministry of Justice, and he won the pitch of his life. Paul Sachs’ story shows that if there were Ten Commandments for entrepreneurs, the first would be: ‘Know Thy Customer’. The second would be: ‘Believe’.