Digital Courts to improve speed and efficiency.

17 July 2014

The Government are planning to have all court rooms in England and Wales fully digital by 2016, to end what the Government deems as an outdated reliance on paper in the justice system.

This proposal is part of a £160 million plan to improve the speed and efficiency of the criminal justice system and the measures will include secure wi-fi in court to enable lawyers and the judiciary to access all necessary documents digitally.

The Justice Minister, Damian Green, said that the plan would turn the court system in to a modern public service and follows a pilot at a 'concept court' at Birmingham Magistrates' Court. This pilot has been running since March 2013 and has dealt with approximately 80 cases, ranging from shoplifting to offences of violence.

The criminal justice system has often been criticised for delay and the Government's allocation of such a large amount of money is perhaps an indictor of it's concern. The proposals mean that information could be shared electronically but securely across agencies within the system, and would prevent unnecessary adjournments due to 'paper' files mistakenly not being produced at court.

Mr Green said "every year the courts and Crown Prosecution Service use roughly 160 million sheets of paper. Stacked up this would be the same as 15 Mount Snowdons – literally mountains of paper. If we are to win in the global race, this must change. It is time we move the court system in to the 21st century. This investment will help us get rid of our outdated paper based system and turn our criminal justice system in to a digital and modern public service. 

The plan will build on the existing use of technology. For sometime CPS lawyers have worked from tablet devices and documents have been sent to defence lawyers via secure email. In addition to this the plan includes the following:

  • Encouraging the police to use mobile devices, with access to real time intelligence and local information, to start building case files 'from the street'.
  • Police evidence via video link to become the norm, not the exception.
  • Legislating to enable the majority of high volume, low level 'regulatory' cases such as TV licence evasion and many traffic offences to be dealt with away from traditional Magistrates' courtrooms which means freeing up the courts to deal with more serious cases.
  • Supporting the extension of the 'track my crime' system to other police areas. This initiative was launched by Avon and Somerset Constabulary and gives victims the opportunity to check the progress of their case online, including the name of the police officer with responsibility. It allows the police to send updates to victims on their case.

While many lawyers welcome the investment, some have expressed fears about security and what may happen if the system crashes. One advocate stated "if the system crashes you are not just talking about losing a document or a file, you could have a complete meltdown of the system within a court, and if security is not water tight, highly sensitive and confidential information could be accessed. The history of Government procurement of IT systems is not a happy one."

The Legal Aid Agency are introducing the ability to submit Legal Aid applications online in digital form, replacing the need for lengthy forms to be printed and submitted by hand. Technically this would enable those with access to the necessary technology to submit an application direct from the police station or court, however there are problems being encountered with the wi-fi connections at courts and police stations not being able to be accessed by all, and with police being reluctant to enable lawyers to have access to digital media within the police station.

Whilst it seems unlikely that there will be many people objecting to the proposals, it will be the implementation of the proposals and ensuring that everyone has access to the appropriate IT systems that could make or break the scheme.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.