European Court of Human Rights achieves end-to-end digitisation with electronic signatures

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has cut costs and improved efficiency and auditing with the implementation of a digital signature solution.


The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has cut costs and improved efficiency and auditing with the implementation of a digital signature solution.

The court receives over 65,000 applications from European citizens a year, which results in half a million letters that need to be signed, not to mention printed and posted, every year.

To manage the high document volume, the ECHR used its team of three full-time developers to create its own workflow management system, based on Microsoft SharePoint Workflow Foundation.

A digital signature solution, CoSign from ARX, was a key part of this system, implemented six years ago. The workflow system is also connected to an electronic document management (EDM) system from OpenText that sits in the Court Management Information System. Around 200 of the 800 ECHR employees use the system to sign documents, while everyone uses the workflow system.

“In terms of the business case, it was a no brainer,” said John Hunter, head of the ECHR’s IT department.

“We had over 65,000 applications a year and with that there are loads of correspondence. The registrars had to sit and sign these letters.

“Now everything is done by workflow,” Hunter said. “We use the application number to identify who the [relevant] lawyer is, and it automatically creates the [workflow] route when we identify the lawyer.”

This has helped cut out “so much” of the manual tasks, Hunter said, as well as the amount of paper going around the building, which means that a mailroom is no longer needed.

“Also, because it is in a PDF format, we can archive it in our EDM,” he added.

Despite the strong business case for the digital signature system, Hunter said that at first getting people to use it was the main challenge.

Hunter overcame this by testing a member of the court.

“I obtained two letters signed on paper by the registrar of the court. I presented him with four documents, three of which were authentic and a fourth on which I had personally faked his signature. He identified the fake one as an authentic document. This demonstrated to him how easy it is to sign a document and put it into the system, whereas with digital signatures, the time of signing is recorded and a certificate is issued so that the entire process is much more reliable,” he said.

Cost savings

One of the most tangible cost savings that Hunter has identified is in postage.

“Not all applicants have email, but I would say that if we sent 50 percent of the half a million letters electronically, if you think about the cost of a postage stamp, you’ve got immediate ROI,” he said.

“The cost of a stamp is one or two euro, and with three letters that are sent with each application, it’s a massive saving.”

The electronic transfer of documents also saves the court time.

“In some countries, if letters were posted, it would take weeks to arrive. Now, it’s instantaneous,” Hunter said.

The Russian government, which was the first to adopt the electronic system, were quick to see the benefits. Out of 47 governments, 40 communicate with the ECHR electronically, while the other seven are in the process of adopting the platform.

“The Russians love it,” Hunter said, adding that if he could convince the Russians, he could convince anyone.

“They used to stand in front of a fax machine for hours. Now you just drag and drop it.”

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