Opinion: Judges presiding over criminal trials in England and Wales have all gone digital. The rest of the justice system will be a harder nut.
Of all arms of the public sector, HM Judiciary would seem the least likely to adopt digital working with enthusiasm.
Today’s senior judges served their legal apprenticeships - never mind their schooling - in the pre-web era, so working on screen is a big jump. Judges are also accustomed to being treated as a special case when it comes to administrative reforms: for a start, they cannot be made redundant.
Despite this, judges dealing with serious criminal cases in England and Wales have made one of the smoothest transitions from paper to digital ever seen in the public sector. Between April 2015 and April 2016 they dispensed with paper bundles of evidence in court proceedings and are now calling up documents on Wi-Fi connected laptops.
The 'e-judiciary' system rolled out by HM Courts and Tribunals Service, part of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), includes the Crown Court Digital Case System (CCDCS). This gives all parties in a case identical views of the evidence documents, with the same page numbering, anywhere they have an internet connection.
Lord Justice Fulford, who as senior presiding judge was in charge of persuading the his colleagues to go digital, describes the changeover as "extraordinary" after "strong early scepticism". The success of e-judiciary, he says, is a reason to be optimistic about the MoJ's £1 billion Transforming our Justice System programme, under which online processes will replace many court hearings across the civil and criminal justice system.
But Fulford’s optimism may be misplaced. While judges may have been a tough challenge as a user base, it was possible to implement the e-judiciary programme in a way which, experience shows, is most likely to avoid disaster. It involved:
- Tackling the right problem. This was a discrete and identifiable issue: the frustration of dealing with vast bundles of ill sorted paper evidence, which was widely recognised by senior users. Judges were ready to go through a certain amount of pain learning to use the system because they could immediately recognise the benefits. This message was reinforced by the involvement of users in a judicial engagement group.
- Implementing the right technology. Even the most technophobe judges will have friends and family members who routinely work on Wi-Fi connected laptops. With the CCDCS they’re expected to catch up with the rest of the world, not leapfrog it.
- Picking the right contractor. CCDCS is based on a commercial product, CaseLines, designed by a UK start-up, Netmaster Solutions and procured through G-Cloud. This meant a speedy procurement, with no re-inventing the wheel, and a contractor strongly motivated to make the project work.
Alas, not all these success factors will be replicable in the much more amorphous transforming justice programme. The problem here is not just scale but the involvement of many different types of stakeholders, from small businesses seeking civil redress to parents representing themselves in traumatic family proceedings.
Transformed court systems will need a public facing front end, serving the needs of open justice while, for example, protecting the identities of children and vulnerable witnesses.
Ridiculous and outmoded
The MoJ is currently digesting responses to a consultation on the programme. Many will be sceptical. The response of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, raises concerns about issues ranging from digital exclusion to identity theft to the risk that online courts will encourage more guilty pleas, and that innocent people will collect life-changing criminal records as a result.
Fulford has said he is confident that the wider justice system will belatedly make the switch to digital.
"Already, the paper processes of yesteryear feel quite ridiculous and outmoded," he said this month. "My hope is that over the next few years the response of the professions and all others who work in our courts will be the same."
But while a demonstrable success such as e-judiciary is a great confidence builder, the MoJ may find that some stakeholders are even more difficult than judges to bring into the digital age.
Image by Michael D Beckwith, public domain through flic