Lessons for the Lord Chancellor

When a bad poet composes a verse in a Word document, the result may be perfectly laid out in a lavish font, its title grandly...

When a bad poet composes a verse in a Word document, the result may be perfectly laid out in a lavish font, its title grandly italicised and underlined, but in all likelihood it will remain a poor poem: word processing software cannot correct shoddy scanning and cumbersome imagery.


Technology can be a great facilitator, in other words, but it cannot work miracles. Sadly, as it prepares for a fourth attempt in 12 years to introduce a standardised national caseworking system for our magistrates courts, there is no sign that the Lord Chancellor's Department has learnt this lesson.

Twelve years since the first steps towards a single system for exchanging case files electronically were taken, magistrates courts are still transferring paperwork between lawyers, police and the Crown Prosecution Service by fax and post. Meanwhile, Fujitsu is to be paid £232m - nearly £50m more than it was due to collect under the terms of its original contract with the Lord Chancellor's Department - for delivering only a portion of the work it originally committed to.

There is no doubting that the criminal justice system needs a single, national case management solution. Tony Blair himself has described our criminal justice IT as being "in the dark ages". But for any such solution to deliver, the Lord Chancellor's Department must first get end-user buy-in and tackle the archaic and overly complex working practices that hobble our criminal justice system.

For decades, our magistrates courts have worked with complete autonomy on any one of three incompatible systems. Until this situation is rectified, and until their "Jarndyce vs Jarndyce"-style practices are overhauled, no system can seriously be expected to deliver efficiencies.

The Lord Chancellor's Department's problems must surely be providing food for thought for the civil servants responsible for NHS IT. We must hope that they come to appreciate the futility of attempting to graft expensive computer systems onto ill-constructed and unwieldy working processes. After all, computerising the magistrates courts is a pretty straightforward business compared to the NHS.

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