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UK justice system set for ‘wholesale shift’ to digital

£1bn programme is latest government plan to transform courts with better use of technology

The UK government has announced plans for a “wholesale shift” to accessing the justice system digitally.

A report released on 15 September, called Transforming our justice system, lays out the government’s latest ambitions to transform the court system through the use of technology.

The £1bn programme – a figure that includes programmes that are already under way – is intended to see every court and tribunal in England and Wales become “digital by default”.

“The revolution in technology will characterise tomorrow’s justice system,” said the report, produced jointly by Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Elizabeth Truss, Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder, and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.

“We will provide online access by developing a single online system for starting and managing cases across the criminal, civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions,” it continued. “Less visible to the public will be the widespread introduction of robust document and case management systems, to replace the highly inefficient paper filing systems of today – measures that will improve efficiency throughout. Some cases will be handled entirely online.”

The reform programme foresees “a wholesale shift to accessing justice digitally” and flags up two “significant developments” that will affect the way courts and tribunals operate: “The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.”

In 2014, the Ministry of Justice announced a five-year £270m programme to update and replace technology used in courts and tribunals across the UK.

Under that plan – which is part of the new, wider initiative – HM Courts & Tribunals Service was to invest an average of up to £75m a year over five years from 2015/16 to deliver more efficient and effective administration in courts and tribunals, with the aim of saving more than £100m a year by 2019/20.

“We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward,” said Truss.

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According to the report, Wi-Fi has been introduced for legal professionals in almost all criminal courts, and most magistrates’ courts casework is now transferred digitally between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

“This digital working allows the defence, prosecution and courts to work together better, saving time and allowing them to focus their energy on the issues of the case,” the report said.

“But there is still too much evidence being carted around the country on CDs and CCTV tapes, and too many digital ways of working rely on people scanning in pieces of paper. That will change. All participants in a case, from the judge to the jurors, the Crown Prosecution Service and the defence, legal advisers and court staff, will soon become ‘digital by default’.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has a chequered history when it comes to major IT projects. In June 2014, the department was forced to write off £56.3m from its shared services programme.

In April this year, a National Audit Office report said inefficient IT systems in the MoJ were hampering the government’s plans to reduce reoffending rates among convicted criminals.

The £234m C-Nomis system was scrapped in 2009 after running two years late and at double the original cost.

And much further back, in 2006 the Libra case management system for magistrates courts saw costs rise to £487m – more than three times the £146m original cost set in 1998.

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