Top judge defends progress of digital courts programme

Lord chief justice enthuses about potential of technology as courts chief acknowledges delays in implementation

The troubled £1 billion programme to computerise courts in England and Wales has won the enthusiastic backing of the head of the judiciary.

In a lecture earlier this month, Lord Burnett of Maldon, the lord chief justice, accused critics of the programme of “misunderstanding what is envisaged and then subjecting the resulting Aunt Sally to attack”.

Many of the programme’s problems stem from the failure of previous administrations to act, Lord Burnett said.

The lord chief justice’s words may bring comfort to the secretary of state for justice, David Gauke MP, and the head of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Susan Acland-Hood, who last week had to admit to MPs that a key component of the IT programme was behind schedule.

In evidence to the commons Public Accounts Committee, Acland-Hood said that some elements “are running behind where I would like them to be... The critical ones for me are some elements of the crime programme - the Common Platform - that were running behind.”

The Common Platform is the current incarnation of the long wished-for plan to replace legacy case management IT across the courts and prosecution services with a single system providing seamless access to necessary material.

Running slowly

“The Common Platform started life before the rest of HMCTS reform and has been running slower than we want for some time,” Acland-Hood said.

By contrast, Lord Burnett enthused about the Common Platform’s potential to “squeeze most paper out of the criminal justice system altogether”. It would build on the success of the Digital Case System in the criminal courts, which has avoided the need to print more than 40 million pieces of paper over the past two years.

Delivering the Sir Henry Brooke Annual Lecture on “the age of reform” Lord Burnett looked beyond the current five-year programme, which he said was only the start of a “continuing process”. This will include embracing artificial intelligence as the “transformative technology of our age”.

Burnett said that in the future AI would find a role predicting the outcome of disputes - and in rendering courtroom interpreters redundant.  

Digital exclusion 

Concerns about digital exclusion and threats to the dignity of the justice system are overblown, Burness said, adding: “There are no plans to do away with the use of paper in the courts and tribunals for those who genuinely cannot make use of technology or get help to do so.”

He blamed much of the controversy on previous administrations' failures to grasp technology.

“After so long a period of stasis, when finally - as we are now doing - modernisation occurs one is faced with two problems: first, modernisation looks more radical than it is because of the sharper distinction between what it will introduce and what it will replace; and, secondly, it is likely to be more expensive than it would have been if it had started earlier.”