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Courts Service fails to dampen data disappointment


Michael Cross Correspondent

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The final phase of a seven-year £1 billion IT based modernisation project is not the best time to start thinking about data strategy.

But HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), responsible for services in England and Wales, has found itself in this position a year after receiving a wake-up call from justice campaigners.

Earlier this month HMCTS published a long awaited response to the report Digital Justice, published a year ago following a three-month unpaid secondment by Dr Natalie Byrom (pictured), research director at the Legal Education Foundation charitable trust.

That report concluded that the courts reform programme, begun in 2016, creates an unprecedented opportunity for sharing data to improve access to justice. Its recommendations included disseminating court judgments for free and in a structured, machine readable format.

On the surface, HMCTS agrees. In its response and progress update the agency accepts 17 of Byrom’s recommendations and either agrees or agrees ‘with the principle’ of the remainder.

Announcing the publication, Kevin Sadler, acting chief executive, said: “We welcome these recommendations on data collection to support the evaluation of reform and on developing our approach to open and shared data.”

Work underway

HMCTS says in the report that it has already started work on collecting data on court users – a crucial first step. It also promises to collect data on the outcomes of cases across different court processes, including the online court set up under the reform programme.

An “external-facing data catalogue” will allow researchers and technology innovators to know for the first time what data the courts system holds, is in the works. 

But the programme still seems to be governed by caution. Judges, for example, are highly suspicious of moves to open up their rulings to AI based case outcome prediction systems. (The only free public database of judgments, run by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute prohibits bulk downloads and data scraping.)

The HMCTS response mentions “potential risks to judicial independence”. Accepting the principle that “more work is needed” on access to judgments, the report concludes: “This is a complex area and we will work with the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary to develop proposals over the next 12 months.”

This caution applies to even the most basic data. A year ago Dr Byrom proposed as a starting point that HMCTS consider introducing unique identifiers for individual users to enable proper studies to be made on access to justice. HMCTS agrees that understanding of users “should be deepened” – but says unique identifiers “are not part of the current scope of work”.


The Legal Education Foundation issued a statement making clear it has not been impressed.

Its chief executive Matthew Smerdon said: “If the window of opportunity was vanishing a year ago when we first published the Digital Justic’ report, it is now at risk of disappearing completely. Over the last 12 months, HMCTS has made disappointingly slow progress at moving forward on any of the major recommendations made by Dr Byrom.

“In our view, Covid-19 cannot be an excuse. Rather, the impact of the pandemic on the court service has shone a spot-light on why it is more important than ever to improve the quality of data collection to enable the digital transformation of the court service.”

Dr Byrom has pointed out that the time to embed such procedures, including the necessary safeguards, is when systems are being developed rather than expensively adding them as an afterthought. “If data collection is not built in now, as digital systems are being designed and tested, it will never happen,” she warned.

Given the inherent conservatism of the legal profession and the judiciary, such an outcome might be convenient.

Image from Legal Education Foundation

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