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Battle lines form over digital courts



The Ministry of Justice is ignoring a golden rule of digital transformation

A good rule of digital transformation is not to try it when you are already at odds with your stakeholders. At the very least they may be slow to come up with the acts of faith needed when investing time to learn a new system; at worst they may actively sabotage it.

The Ministry of Justice seems to be ignoring this dictum in pressing ahead with the long overdue computerisation of courts and other parts of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

The initiative, first promised more than a decade ago, is picking up pace in the midst of a bitter and unprecedented dispute with lawyers over reforms to the criminal legal aid scheme. In a rare show of unity, both solicitors and barristers have been boycotting large amounts of legal aid work since a cut in fees took effect at the beginning of July.


Meanwhile, it is consulting on plans to shut nearly one fifth of the courts estate in England and Wales, a saving largely enabled by IT. The theory, set out in an efficiency review earlier this year, is that “virtual hearings” and better management of cases through joined up information can replace a large proportion of physical court appearances.

However, the closure programme has become a further bone of contention with lawyers. Announcing the closures, the justice minister, Shailesh Vara, said that courts would still be less than an hour’s travel away for more than 95% of citizens. But the Law Society of England and Wales has said that figure is based on driving to court and has published an online map which suggests that in northern England and much of Wales journey times will be far greater.

Wi-Fi by 2015

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice’s efficiency programme is aiming to bring together the police, courts service, Crown Prosecution Service and National Offender Management Service, in a partnership with the judiciary and magistracy, to deliver “digital courtrooms” to both magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court.  The idea is that magistrates, judges, defenders, prosecutors and others will  be able to work from digital devices and present evidence to the court electronically. An essential early step is Wi-Fi in all courts, promised by the end of 2015.

Groups representing criminal lawyers say they are willing to embrace the programme - but as an alternative to legal aid fee cuts, not alongside them.

Long fight

Both sides seem settling in for a long fight. But a shorter cut to reduce magistrates’ court appearances by 10% might be to decriminalise the non payment of television licences; the offence accounted for 178,300 prosecutions in 2013, and about 30 prison sentences. Press reports say that the lord chancellor, Michael Gove, is in favour of the idea.



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