At last: a digital success in justice

Crown court judges have forsaken paper for laptops. That’s worth celebrating, but doesn’t mean IT is all downhill from here.

You may have missed this news – or flatly refused to believe it – but between April 2015 and April 2016 the Crown courts in England and Wales achieved a technological breakthrough. In what may be a world first for an established judicial system, judges have abandoned paper evidence bundles, instead calling up evidence on laptop computers.

The senior presiding judge, Lord Justice Fulford is right to call the achievement ‘extraordinary’.

The Crown Court Digital Case System (CCDCS) is part of a suite of systems called e-judiciary. Basically, it gives all parties identical views of the evidence documents, with the same page numbering, anywhere they have an internet connection. Anyone who has spent half an hour watching a complex criminal trial will spot the opportunities for efficiencies and time-saving. Not to mention saving a few trees.

After decades of dismal experiences with IT projects, how did the Ministry of Justice finally get it right? As a bit of a connoisseur of government computer fiascoes, I detect the following success indicators:

  • The right problem. The project tackled a discrete and identifiable issue – vast bundles of ill-sorted evidence – from the point of view of senior users. Judges were ready to go through a certain amount of pain learning to use it because they could immediately recognise the benefits. This message was reinforced by the involvement of users in the so-called judicial engagement group.
  • 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.
  • The right contractor. CCDCS is based on a commercial product, CaseLines, from a UK start-up company called Netmaster Solutions. It has a headcount of 12. The MoJ procured the system through a system called G-Cloud, which was designed to open up the government computer market to innovative small companies rather than the oligarchy of giant systems integrators whose names crop up time and time again in National Audit Office reports. Being small isn’t always beautiful, but when a managing director stands to lose everything if a project goes wrong, minds are concentrated wonderfully.

Credit for G-Cloud, incidentally, should go to one of the coalition government’s more effective ministers, the veteran Francis Maude (Lord Maude of Horsham), now an adviser at international firm Covington.

So now we’ve cracked the IT problem, is the transformational justice programme, including the online court, all downhill from now on? Alas, no. Experience with other complex large organisations such as the NHS shows that implementation problems increase exponentially with the size of the project and the number of stakeholders, especially when they don’t necessarily share the same priorities. Someone is always going to feel that a system has been foisted on them.

There is a special problem when one of the stakeholder groups is the general public. Transformed court systems will need a public-facing front end, delivering listings, relevant information about parties and evidence bundles and verdicts at the appropriate points. (Solicitor colleagues can be relied upon to point out the complexities, especially in cases involving juveniles or other vulnerable parties.) Unlike commercial organisations, public bodies can’t pick their customers.

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