The criminal justice system (CJS) in England and Wales is typical of many court systems in the UK and around the world with increasing caseloads and decreasing budgets.
The CJS has embraced elements of new technology but because of a lack of sufficient investment the system has “remained rooted in working practices that are wholly recognizable to judges and court staff [of] four decades ago,” said The Right Honorable Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen’s Bench, in a keynote address at the Modernising Justice 2015 conference in London on June 24, 2015.
To date, Leveson said that technology improvements to the CJS have increased the system’s dependency on paper. Photocopiers have proliferated paper in case files. Tape-recorded interviews and video recordings are reduced to paper transcripts. Evidence from body-worn video cameras, cell-site analyses of mobile phone systems, and electronic material, all reduced to paper, is now “unimaginably huge” to review.
“Although much has changed a great deal has stubbornly remained the same,” said Leveson. Judges are used to handling, redlining and highlighting paper content and prefer it to a medium that can disappear at the click of a computer mouse.
But soon the court systems in England and Wales will catch up with consumer technology that enables people to renew their driver’s licenses online, schedule holidays online and download books to read and music to listen to – all the technology that younger generations expect at work and home. Yet it is “critical not to build information technology into the current system but to build a new system that uses what technology must offer as the starting point,” said Leveson.
In March 2014, Her Majesty’s Treasury approved an investment package of c.£700 million covering three broad programmes to improve case management and IT infrastructure, moving to a “digital by default” justice system: CJS Efficiency, to upgrade courts with Wi-Fi and digital presentation capabilities; CJS Common Platform for the criminal justice system; and HMCTS Reform that will see digital transformation in the rest of the civil, family and tribunals systems. It is estimated that these transformation programmes will save more than £100m per year.
At the heart of the new CJS Common Platform is a system for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Magistrate and Crown Court jurisdictions that enables every case to be initiated, progressed and managed online, from the police through to the offender management and probation services. The Reform programme will drive the ability for parties to launch cases and pay fees online, cases will be managed and listed online, and all documents will be delivered electronically. New ways of working will be introduced such as online dispute resolution, and many uncontested processes will be completely removed from court hearings to transactional online services. This digital transformation will also enable courtrooms to become multijurisdictional to optimise use of the courts estate.
Information will only be keyed in once, whether by the police officers in a criminal case or litigants in a civil matter. Hearings will be conducted online via telephone and videoconferencing tools and judges will make their judgments directly on the Internet. All case information will be stored in a central location and accessed by any authorised person from any location.
These new systems will drive a radical change from how judges and lawyers work today. While there will be an increased need to create more structured data alongside documents submitted as part of a case file, this will drive benefits through better scheduling and enabling analytics and search capabilities to inform timely decisions at the right points in the processes. All those involved in the delivery of justice “are going to have to learn new tricks,” said Leveson. And the allocation of work and training will be critical to the success of the new system.
“Elephant traps abound,” said Leveson, but if the new system works, England and Wales will have created a brand new justice system that litigants come to expect — and that will save money. The question is: Are lawyers and barristers ready for this digital revolution?
This article was written by Jim Leason, head of the Thomson Reuters Court Management Solutions business in UK & Ireland, and previously appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Forum magazine.