On the morning of Dec. 16, 2010, journalists and Irish citizens awaited the announcement of an important decision from the European Court of Human Rights. Would women in Ireland whose lives are threatened by their pregnancies be given better access to abortions? “At exactly 11 o’clock, that ruling went up on our website,” recalls John Hunter, head of IT at ECHR. “Two minutes later, it was on the front page of The Irish Times. Ten minutes later, it was on the BBC [British Broadcasting Company] site.”

Ireland prohibits abortions unless a woman’s life is in danger. Three women who were denied abortions in Ireland and flew to England for the procedure brought a case against the Irish government to the ECHR. The court found that the rights of one of the women had been violated, and ordered Ireland to reform its system by clarifying legislation on how doctors can better determine what constitutes a “real and substantial risk” to a pregnant woman’s life.

The case is just one of 90,000 that have been adjudicated by the ECHR, based in Strasbourg, France, since its founding by the Council of Europe in 1959. The court is tasked with “ruling on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Matters are complex and varied, coming from 47 countries with 850 million citizens. The court receives many duplicate filings that overlap with existing case law in home countries, or existing precedent within the ECHR, Hunter acknowledges. Frequent frivolous complaints are also problematic. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is among critics who have accused the court of lacking transparency, and charge that it is serving as a “small claims court” rather than as a final court of appeals dealing with only the most significant human rights matters.

So Hunter’s team set out to address these problems. A first step was to upgrade the court’s existing database technology so rulings could be quickly posted and accessible. To ensure that news media (as well as the 5,000-plus people who visit the court’s public website when a ruling is released) can simultaneously access the database and easily search for what they need, Hunter and his team turned to SkyDox.

But there also was a secondary agenda — to minimize the number of people and organizations bringing claims to the court that had been ruled on previously, explains Ali Moinuddin, chief marketing officer for SkyDox. Some 4.6 million people visit the site annually to search for court cases in the database. Improving the search functions of its public-facing, web-based case repository, HUDOC (short for “human rights documentation”), was key to achieving this goal, explains Hunter. Although he says he did not have a specific metric in mind, Hunter was convinced that an upgrade would reduce duplicate filings, by compelling EU citizens who are considering filing a lawsuit with the court but find similar cases in the system to instead rely on their domestic courts for resolutions.

The court introduced its new database functions in July. SkyDox’s public, cloud-enabled search has multiple filters, including keywords and “refiners” that provide more accurate search returns with results clustered around key data. Users can also see what is contained within a document without having to open the file. The refiners use both the metadata attached to documents as well as words and information contained in the text. For example, there are language-specific refiners, as well as refiners that identify specific articles of a United Nations convention mentioned in a document.

SkyDox is one small piece in the lifecycle that brings 90,000 ECHR rulings from the court’s internal repository to the desktop of a reporter. Documents and their related metadata are published to a SharePoint list within HUDOC from the court’s document management system, operated by OpenText Corp.’s eDocs 5.3. Published documents are then formatted into PDF and HTML and indexed by the Microsoft Fast engine via the SkyDox interface, which allows the engine to search, tag and index the files, automatically adding refiners and specific search criteria. Crawling search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing also index the files.

Hunter says his team chose to work with SkyDox because it is one of the few collaboration and file-sharing providers that can build upon an organization’s existing content management system. ECHR wanted to maintain its current use of a Microsoft Fast search, which integrates with SkyDox’s enhanced search capabilities.

HUDOC has undergone a long transformation leading up to the July release of the Fast-powered, SkyDox-enabled platform. The database, hosted on ECHR’s servers, was first built in 1999 on a system called KM operated by PC Docs. It was bought by Hummingbird, which subsequently was acquired by OpenText. During the consolidations and changes, ECHR continued to use Fulcrum’s original KM program, eventually inquiring whether its new owners would make upgrading the system a priority.

Hunter approached OpenText executives to ask if the company planned to continue to update the software — which had become outdated. Specifically, it could not aggregate searches according to clusters of similar files, a function that competitors such as Autonomy and Microsoft Fast offered.

OpenText’s answer was “no.” Hunter’s department then realized it needed to look elsewhere in order for its public-facing database to possess the up-to-date tools that would allow its thousands of users to better find what they sought. The team spent 18 months on a proof-of-concept search for a new server, at which time, it “looked at 10 of the top companies including Google,” eventually settling on Microsoft Fast. After the Councilor of Europe approved this selection, the team proceeded with an international call for tender to provide enhanced search capacity, and SkyDox won, Hunter says, because it “stood out from the rest. Although another company was very close, [SkyDox's] design element was excellent, its technical competence good, its proposal very well thought out, and we knew the project would be a success.” (ECHR says it cannot share which other vendors were considered because of nondisclosure agreements). SkyDox declined to identify its competitors, saying they don’t traditionally consider this work their specialty.

“It’s a crowded field,” says Fenwick & West’s director of applications and business process Mark Gerow, who suggests that the nearest competitor is probably NetDocuments — with some overlap with file-sharing sites such as box.net and Dropbox, or even Google Docs and Microsoft Live.

“SkyDox is also going up against a number of data center operators that are offering secure, private cloud environments,” observes technology writer John Edwards, a frequent contributor to Law Technology News.

The cost of the ECHR project was 350,000 Euros ($462,245 U.S.). Development began in September 2011 and Hunter presented the prototype to a receptive audience of government agents and lawyers from member countries at the group’s annual meeting.

As court personnel and the public use the enhanced portal, Hunter anticipates that the SkyDox team will accommodate and adapt to their feedback. Remaining user-friendly and transparent is key to ensuring the ECHR’s continued efficacy and relevance in the international sphere, he notes. But it’s not always easy, as evidenced by continuing criticism of the court.

“We live in a very volatile world at the moment and the court is standing for basic human rights,” Hunter says, “which is very important nowadays — to protect people but also to disseminate information, to make the court available to everybody.”

SkyDox offers three types of deployment models: 1) hybrid (on-premise and private cloud), 2) private cloud, and 3) public cloud — all mainly focused on collaboration and secure file sharing, explains Sean Doherty, technology editor of Law Technology News. The SkyDox document management system is focused on Microsoft Office, which uses plug-ins for Word, Excel and PowerPoint that provide versioning and incorporates online collaboration for Track Changes. SkyDox also integrates with Microsoft’s SharePoint, Doherty notes. •