Analysis: Everyone agrees that mountains of paper are absurd, but criminal justice may be the hardest part of the public sector to digitise
Digitally integrating processes across organisations in any part of the public sector is difficult enough - just ask anyone charged with the urgent and essential task of joining up NHS and social services. How much harder would it be if one stakeholder in the system - a community pharmacy, say - saw its mission as killing as many patients/clients as possible?
That, roughly, is the difference between the criminal justice sector and most other arms of the public sector. All participants, from police to prosecutors to defence lawyers to courts to prison and rehabilitation are committed to the principle of “justice”. But when it comes to individual cases, they will often have opposing goals, even when, such as in the case of prosecuting and defending solicitors, they share the same professional values.
Adversarial by design
The fact that the justice system in England and Wales is adversarial by design has often confounded assumptions that all stakeholders (with the possible exception of defendants) have an interest in pulling together to reduce manifest inefficiencies.
One example is in the programme to conduct routine preliminary court hearings by video. Nearly everyone agrees this is a good idea, but it leaves defending solicitors, often operating on a shoestring, with a dilemma: do they sit at their client’s end of the link to prevent untoward pressure, or the court end, where they may be better placed if they need to have a quiet word with the bench?
In its critical report on justice system efficiency earlier this month, the National Audit Office pointed to a number of good practices which, at first sight, could be easily extended across the system. Not all involved high technology.
One court saved huge amount of police time by agreeing to fix appointments with judges when they were asked to approve warrants. Previously, officers had turned up on spec and waited for a judge to become available.
The watchdog also acknowledged that the system presents unique challenges, including the difficulty of measuring success. Stakeholders have “a number of objectives, which can be in tension, and it is not possible to know for certain whether a case has produced the ‘right’ result in terms of convicting all those who are guilty and no-one who is innocent.”
In addition, sometimes reforms can have paradoxical side effects. For example, abolishing committal hearings in magistrates’ courts puts more pressure on the Crown courts as cases arrive in them more quickly.
Nonetheless, the NAO’s boss Sir Amyas Morse fell into the old assumption that, if only all parties would get onside, the case for reform would be self-evident. “It is essential that the criminal justice system pulls together and takes collective responsibility for sorting out the longstanding issues,” he said.
Perhaps it will heed the call. However, this is not a good time to be asking for goodwill from professional public servants. The NAO’s report points out that the justice system has already shouldered one of the biggest budget cuts in central government - a fall of 26% since 2010 - and that it needs to cut spending by another 15% by 2020. Morale, even among the judiciary let alone courts staff and frontline solicitors, is at an all time low.
There might be a reason for optimism: at one level, the funding crisis might provide the classic 'burning platform' imperative for change. However, it is also a reminder that, as elsewhere, the Government would have done better to start mending the roof while the sun was shining.