Long delayed attempt to computerise Crown Courts steps up a gear
A decade old ambition to replace massive paper “bundles” with digital files in criminal courts has taken a step towards reality.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) announced yesterday that the Crown Court Digital Case System (DCS) is being rolled out in a seven early adopter areas following a successful pilot in Leeds and Southwark.
The Crown Court, which sits at some 90 locations in England and Wales including the Old Bailey in London, handles criminal cases serious enough to be tried by jury.
Computerisation has proved difficult because of the lack of physical infrastructure such as power sockets and, more problematically, by the different professional cultures of court users. These include small solicitors’ firms and self-employed barristers who may be reluctant to share systems with the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as judges whose training still often dates from an age before IT.
The online Crown Court Digital Case System allows case material to be be accessed, prepared and presented digitally by the judge, clerk, defence, prosecution and probation services. It includes features such as bookmarks and notes which allow users to highlight key arguments or evidence, help with cross-examination and link quickly to key documents.Legal practitioners access the system via a criminal justice secure email account.
Earlier this month, HMCTS’s new chief executive Natalie Ceeney bemoaned the fact that “systems across our courts and tribunals service are still dependent on paper and large elements of our work remain manual, or done on green-on-black IT, requiring our newly hired graduates to learn, for the first time, how to use an IT system without a mouse or a browser”.
However, even the availability of 21st century technology is no guarantee of success if practitioners are not willing to take it up. In the current state of suspicion between the legal profession and government over issues ranging from legal aid cuts to higher court fees and closures, the jury is still out.