The role of technology in joining up justice services


On Thursday 11 February 2016 Reform held a roundtable, in partnership with BT, on ‘The role of technology in joining up justice services’ with Paul Whittaker CBE, Common Platform Transformation Director at the Crown Prosecution Service as lead speaker. His opening remarks are below.

Paul WhittakerGood afternoon everyone and welcome to Reform and today’s session on the role of technology in joining up justice services. I hope you will forgive me if I start by looking back….

And please forgive me also if I mention things you are already very familiar with….

For generations the Criminal Justice System (CJS) has been paper heavy and cumbersome – and some would say locked into using quill pens and horsehair wigs! Investment in IT has lagged behind the commercial world and much of our legal culture is imbued with the legacy of the past.

2010 provided a wake-up call for everyone in the public sector. The Spending Review underlined what many of us already knew – we could no longer afford the staff or resources necessary to manage all that paper and physical material. Things had to change, and quickly.

At the same time, many of us were also becoming acutely aware that the experience we offered to victims, witnesses, and citizens, fell far short of what other modern organisations were doing.

The user experience for our own staff – in the CJS many of these are professionals – was also far short of what it could be

All this had been flagged up years earlier – Lord Justice Auld reported on the CJS in 2003 and he identified all those problems then – recognising that passing information between agencies was duplicating effort and diluting resources. In particular he recommended a single IT system as the way to deliver an efficient and effective CJS.

So, rolling on to 2010 – what changed?

The CPS recognised it had to harness the power of modern technology if it was to function effectively with significantly reduced resources. In effect it kickstarted the change….

The vision of the then Director of Public Prosecutions (Keir Starmer) was that ‘the digital file should become the currency of the CJS’.

The work that had been done between policing and CPS over the previous five years to implement the Criminal Justice Exchange allowed forces to transmit case material digitally to CPS for the first time. This offered the potential to provide case material direct to prosecutors’ devices. To harness this possibility the CPS provided all prosecutors with tablet devices and resolved that Magistrates Court hearings would in future be presented from them.

So, five years on, what has been achieved?

  • The CPS now receives 92 per cent of case material from the police digitally.
  • All Magistrates Court hearings are presented from a digital device.
  • Digital presentation screens and Click-Share are available in courts.
  • Wi-Fi is being rolled out to all courts.
  • The CPS has delivered the ‘prosecutor app’ to assist its prosecutors at court.
  • Police forces are rolling out mobile devices and body worn video cameras.
  • The Digital Case System is making a digital file available in the crown court for the first time.

All this represents a huge step forward in a short time across a traditionally conservative CJS. But have we really delivered that vision of a fully digital flow of information through the system?

I would suggest not – yet.

Primarily what we have done is to digitalise the existing paper based process, replicating most of the errors and duplication that brings, whilst most originating material is still captured in paper form and data is still passed from one organisation to another.

The CJS Common Platform Programme is changing that – it is an IT enabled business change programme which will replace the legacy systems of the court service and CPS. It will deliver a single database of all material required to finalise cases (the Auld recommendation) and a streamlined unified business process designed to be digital.  A collaboration between the court service, CPS and Ministry of Justice, it is an agile in-house programme.

User research and the user experience are at the forefront of the design work – both professional users and citizen users – and this is revolutionising the way information will be presented and the way users will interact with the system.

Early products are already in use –

The ability to submit online pleas has been running in Manchester for 18 months and will soon be rolled out to a court in each justice area. This enables defendants to enter a plea online in a motoring case. It has already been used to enter 15,000 pleas online and in the pilot court it has resulted in a 35 per cent increase in the throughput of cases. The clear way that information has been provided has resulted in an increase in guilty pleas.

The Magistrates Court Rota Tool is in use and being rolled out.

Digital Mark Up screens have been developed to enable cases to be finalised digitally in court on existing systems.

Working with the police Digital First programme and forces, an API has been developed to enable direct access to material held in a police digital repository. Piloting has been completed and this is just about to go into live testing with several forces. For the first time prosecutors will be able to stream multi-media direct from a police source and present to a court using ClickShare.

A pilot of the core criminal case management functionality will commence in a crown court this summer

However we are still dependent on existing systems for the receipt of data from policing into the common platform. I would suggest that optimum digital working across the CJS will only be achieved when all agencies have re-designed their processes to be digital-by-default.

Considerable progress continues to be made but there are challenges ahead and I would like to conclude by proposing some, as I see them, for further discussion here today:

With 43 autonomous police forces, how can the police service best develop and consistently implement a streamlined and digital-by-default business process?

How can we ensure as much case information and material as possible is captured digitally at the outset and becomes seamlessly available across the whole CJS?

A significant proportion of the key players in the CJS are independent professionals running their own businesses. These are the solicitors and barristers who represent defendants and undertake much of the Crown Court advocacy. How do we ensure they are engaged and fully embrace this new world?

Modern digital tools offer an unrivalled opportunity to present evidence to courts and jurors in a totally different way – enabling complex, technical and sometimes dry evidence to be presented in a way that helps jurors to understand and assess it properly. We could shorten trials and enhance the likelihood of the correct decision being reached. But how do we ensure our advocates have the knowledge and skills to use the available technology to best effect?

How can we best ensure an unrepresented defendant is not disadvantaged in this digital world?

Thank you for listening. I look forward now to hearing your thoughts and proposals as we continue our discussions.