Posted by Milad Shojaei, a trainee legal advisor at the Ministry of Justice, and strategy & engagement director at Legal Futures Associate Casedo
The UK justice system is centuries old and, despite its esteemed reputation, it needs to keep up-to-date with emerging technologies to stay ahead.
In September 2016, HM Courts & Tribunal Services (HMCTS) announced its six-year reform programme to modernise the administration of justice. The government allocated £1bn towards the initiative, in an aim to transform the court process to be more accessible and efficient whilst saving taxpayer money.
Rolling out the Common Platform
The Common Platform programme commenced in 2016 as one strand of the programme. A £280m digital infrastructure system, it reforms criminal justice by delivering a dedicated online ‘central hub’ allowing organisations, including HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, to share and access relevant information.
The programme is designed to help transition legal professionals away from paper-based systems, while also replacing outdated tools such as Libra, Court Store and Digital Markup. The new technology has facilitated more optimism for the future of the legal industry as lawyers in the criminal justice system (CJS) can deal with cases more efficiently.
Common Platform is now being used in Derby Crown and Magistrates’ Court, and Chesterfield Magistrates’ Court. It is being piloted across England and Wales, with early adopter courts utilising the system on a test basis from September 2020.
HMCTS has taken meaningful steps to place the people who use the system at the forefront of software development. Pursuing an agile methodology in the software development cycle will undoubtedly lead to positive results. This has been demonstrated by many agile organisations, including Casedo, where we have embedded the strategy since the beta development phase.
Although the system connects legal professionals and court staff effectively, there is less clarity on the position of unrepresented defendants. As the CJS takes its digital leap, will vulnerable people be left behind?
Fortunately, the new system is anticipated to be accessible to defendants, victims, and witnesses. This is a crucial step, as the technological objectives of the platform must be balanced with greater transparency, fairness, and improved access to justice.
As Kevin Sadler, the acting chief executive of HMCTS, put it: “This is a key milestone in our reform programme that will improve efficiency and reduce the generation of physical paperwork aiding the delivery of justice”
Delivering digital justice with online courts and video hearings
The Crown Court digital case management system has also delivered broad technological changes. It has been used in all Crown Courts across England & Wales since April 2016 and enables case material to be assessed, prepared, and presented digitally. This has fundamentally transformed the face of the justice system by terminating paper-based operations in the criminal courts.
Moreover, many legal consumers have a growing expectation that services will be delivered digitally. On 16 November 2020, digital case management was extended to caseworkers, who now have ‘read-only’ access to the files. HMCTS says early access to digital case material will enhance the decision-making process.
With this said, digital case files have clearly validated the use of technology by demonstrating how it can enhance access to justice while reducing costs and streamlining processes. What is more, the Digital Case System has saved over 100 million sheets of paper.
The introduction of video hearings is equally crucial to the reform of the CJS. Despite concerns about the reliability of the technology in court and prisons, video hearings have effectively reduced the need for defendants, victims and witnesses to be physically present. This has ultimately shifted expenditure from the courts onto equipping better technology to facilitate digital justice.
Many procedures in the magistrates’ court are now also managed digitally and remotely. Legal advisors, like myself, can manage mental health warrants and single justice procedures from home. We rely on various technical tools to facilitate telephone-conferencing and improved collaboration with colleagues.
Despite displaying commendable progress, HMCTS has encountered resistance to the changes from a famously conservative industry. This is coupled with the apparent skills gap and the challenges in managing current dependencies. As Lord Briggs says, to recognise this level of change will necessitate courage to navigate the “contours of a new paperless world”.
We still have a long way to go
HMCTS has embarked on an ambitious reform programme that has undeniably instigated significant progress in the modernisation of the CJS. The initiative has arguably borne notable success in breaking down the barriers that restricted accessibility, collaboration, and efficiency.
However, HMCTS must build on more stable foundations if it plans on implementing more advanced technologies. The legal sector has come a long way, but it is by no means a technological marvel as compared to our international counterparts. Many legal departments still rely on old legacy systems and paper-based processes.
To effectively transform the court system, we must first facilitate tech-competence and prioritise its embrace. The legal sector must not allow anything to delay its digital evolution, including Covid-19.
The impact of the pandemic should instead be leveraged to highlight the fundamental flaws of our court service and enable a digital revolution that works for everyone.