Government, IT Strategy and the Law

March 1, 1999

The practice of law is still sometimes characterised as an old-fashionedprofession. Mention the word ‘lawyer’ and many people will conjure up mentalpictures of the crotchety, out-of-touch judge, or the white-haired solicitorbent over dusty law books. The range and quality of the exhibits on display atthe Award ceremony, and the fact that this Society recently celebrated its 25thanniversary, makes a nonsense of those outdated images.

I doubt 25 years ago that anyone could possibly have guessed to what extentcomputers would change our lives. Who could have predicted how common they wouldhave become? Who would have dreamt that in 25 years’ time they would havebecome so small, so cheap and so readily available?

It is to the great credit of the founders and early members of the Societyfor Computers and Law that they had the foresight to realise the increasingimportance that computers would assume and the effect that new technology mighthave on the law. After all, they were working at a time when no lawyers’offices possessed computers and when e-mail and the Internet were almostundreamed of. Yet they recognised that change was coming and were shrewd andfar-sighted enough to see that lawyers would benefit by being at the vanguard ofthat change.

That early prescience was matched by the energy and determination that hashelped the Society to grow and to flourish.

When we consider how our lives have been revolutionised in the last 25 yearsby new technology, we cannot help but wonder what the next 25 years will bring.I think there is little doubt that the technological revolution will continue.It is therefore vital to keep abreast of changes and to take advantage of them.I am sure that the Society will continue to play an important part in theencouragement and promotion of new technology in the field of law.

IT Strategy

The Lord Chancellor’s Department is also working to ensure thatdevelopments in IT are harnessed in the service of justice. Many parts of thenew justice system are already supported by IT. We do not know what newtechnologies will be developed, or how existing ones will be improved. But we doknow what we want from IT. We do know in what ways we want to improve thejustice system. Therefore we can, and should, begin to plan the introduction ofthe technology that will support our vision of the future.

It is for that reason that the Department published a consultation papersetting out our ideas on the impact of IT in the civil justice system of thefuture. I am sure that some of you will have responded to it. I am pleased tosay that the response in general was extremely positive and very helpful. Thecontribution of the Society for Computers and Law was particularly thoughtfuland constructive. Indeed, the Society did no less than present its own vision ofthe future, with Web sites for all civil and criminal cases, video conferencingfor pre-trial hearings and a complete set of easy to access, easy to understandlegislation on the Internet.

The Society made several important points that were also reflected in otherresponses. For example, it recommended that planning should be built on minimalprescription and maximum flexibility. It cautioned that the technology shouldnever be allowed to dominate and should never set the agenda: we should alwaysremember that it is our servant. The Society also pointed out the need forquality control of online legal advice services.

Responses to the consultation came from many different interest groups: fromlawyers, consumer groups, court users and judges, among others. Yet there wasoverwhelming unanimity on a number of points. It was agreed that we need to keepan open-minded approach. It was agreed that further research, piloting andmonitoring are essential; and it was agreed that long-term planning is welcomeand necessary. I think the fact that we can all agree on those points is a veryencouraging beginning and makes me optimistic about what we will be able toachieve.

Video Conferencing

Of course, there were disagreements; and that is all to the good. We hoped tostimulate debate: we certainly succeeded. One of the areas which dividedrespondents was the use of video conferencing. Some were cautious, or evensuspicious of this development; others believed that it would save time andmoney and would almost inevitably come into general use. Some took a middlecourse – suggesting that it might have its place when attendance at court wasparticularly inconvenient but should only be used as a last resort.

It is a difficult area. Video conferencing – virtual trials – could be ofgreat benefit to the parties and their lawyers, removing the need for them totravel to sometimes distant courts. They could contribute to the fulfilment ofour main aims for the civil justice system: the increase of access to justiceand the need to resolve disputes quickly, fairly, and at a proportionate cost.Video conferencing could remove much of the expense and inconvenience associatedwith going to court and adjournments would be far less common. Those withmobility problems would no longer fear being placed at a disadvantage.

There could be other benefits: parties and witnesses would probably feel farless intimidated if they were sitting in their own homes. There would be lessscope for tempers to rise and slanging matches to break out if the parties werenot in the same physical space.

However, we must not ignore the downside. Many – including some judges –would feel uneasy with using the new technology. The coming together of theparties can sometimes lead to fruitful discussions between them. A judgmentgiven by video might seem less authoritative to the parties than one deliveredfrom the bench. If people cease to be in awe of the legal process, they mightalso come to have less respect for it.

In this area, as in so many others, we must always bear in mind the potentialdisadvantages of new technology. I can assure you that changes will not beintroduced without consultation, research, piloting and monitoring. Theexperience of other countries can be instructive. For example, we are examiningthe use of video conferencing in other jurisdictions. IT will always beintroduced thoughtfully and intelligently and only if the cost can be justified.

Legal Advice on the Internet

A further area that provoked divided responses was the subject of access onthe Internet to legal advice and information. All agreed that this offered theopportunity greatly to increase access to justice. All agreed too that it wasalmost inevitable that such services would develop, given that we are movingtowards a situation when more and more people will have ready access to theInternet.

However, some viewed the use of online advice services, or DIY law, withalarm, and as a threat to lawyers and advice workers. The idea of reusableadvice was anathema to some. They cautioned that standard advice never could, orshould, take the place of lawyers advising on individual cases. I can reassurethe lawyers – I do not think for one moment that online advice servicespresent a threat to them.

It would be absurd to suggest that online services could replace the workdone by professionals in complex or high value cases. Rather, such servicesshould be seen as complementing the work of lawyers and freeing them fromroutine and repetitive tasks. Easy to use, easy to access information, in plainEnglish, could help people to understand their rights and show them how toenforce them. The availability of before the event advice, and advice at anearly stage of a dispute, could enable many problems to be avoided, or resolvedwithout going to court.

Many pointed out that it would be absolutely vital for online legal servicesto be strictly regulated. Advice would need to be consistent, correct andcomprehensible. I think we would all agree that bad advice is worse than noadvice at all.

Almost everyone agreed that it would be useful to place more legalinformation on the Internet. However, there was disagreement as to exactly what,and how much, should be available. Should every single judgment be entered? Ifnot, who should decide which could be safely omitted? It is always difficult tostrike the balance between offering too much information – so that it isharder to find what is relevant – and offering too little. We will clearlyneed to think hard about this: a coherent strategy is obviously essential.

A number of respondents made the important point that there would be a needto validate Web sites and to provide some form of quality control. I am surethat we are all familiar with the downside of the Internet: its lack ofregulation enables the dishonest, the misinformed and the downright stupid toset up Web sites full of false information. We would need to be very careful tofind a way of letting the public know which sites they can trust.

Coherence and Compatibility

Geoff Hoon, MP
Geoff Hoon, MP at the SCL Award Ceremony

Other general concerns raised were the need to protect confidentialinformation and the need for compatibility between systems. I can give anassurance that those concerns will be addressed. Indeed, every response to theconsultation will be carefully considered and there will be furtherconsultations at future stages.

However, do not think that we are purely at the thinking stage. We arealready doing much to introduce new systems. In particular, we are working hardto standardise existing systems.

In the past, the criminal justice system, in particular, has been hamperedand slowed down by the lack of a coherent strategy. Different criminal justiceagencies use different systems which cannot ‘talk’ to each other. That slowsthings down and means that much work has to be duplicated. We are addressingthat problem.

The Home Office, the CPS and the Lord Chancellor’s Department haveestablished a joint initiative, known as IBIS, Integrating Business andInformation Systems, to co-ordinate both information technology and theunderlying business systems.

IBIS will promote joint strategic planning and ensure that all individualsystems and processes contribute to the aims of the criminal justice system as awhole. This approach is particularly important at a time when the courts, thepolice, the CPS and the prison service are all planning investment in new ITsystems.

Last month the Lord Chancellor’s Department announced the award of acontract worth £183 million, for the supply of updated computer systems andequipment to around 500 magistrates’ courts and offices. The new service,which is known as Libra, will provide a standard IT system to be used across themagistrates’ courts service, replacing the three different ones currently inuse.

Libra will provide a core application system, full office automation andinterfaces for the exchange of data and information between the courts and theother criminal justice agencies. It will help us greatly in our fight againstdelays. For example, adjudications will be sent to the police and other agencieson the day of the hearing. The exchange of accurate and up-to-date informationbetween the courts, the police and the CPS will lessen the risk that cases haveto be adjourned. Better links will also remove much of the duplicate keying-inof data by separate agencies and by different courts.


Witnesses, victims, lawyers and other court users will all benefit from moreeffective and more efficient services. Court staff will be able to give themmuch fuller information at each stage of the case. Better liaison between courtstaff and the agencies will help them to deal more effectively with issues suchas accommodation needs for vulnerable witnesses or protection for witnesses whenthere is a fear of intimidation.

The Magistrates’ Courts Committees will also be winners. Improvedoperational procedures and better statistical information will enable them torun the courts more efficiently and effectively.

New technology will enable us to make better use of expensive courtroom time.Integrated facilities for case scheduling and the reception of parties will meanthat staff have a clearer idea of which of the parties and witnesses for eachcase is present in the building. That means that, if a case finishes early orhas to be adjourned, it will be easier to re-schedule the other cases that arewaiting to be heard.

All of the courts, civil and criminal, will benefit from better links andautomation of routine paperwork. Greater IT support for court staff and thejudiciary will help them to manage cases more effectively and to ensure thatstrict timetables are adhered to. Indeed, that computerised case management iscentral to the reforms we are introducing in the civil justice system.

Everyone involved in the justice system will benefit from increased use ofelectronic transfer of information. At the moment, a feature of many courtroomsis the amount of paper they contain. Consider how much time and effort goes intopreparing the bundles we see there. Consider also how much time is wasted incourt as the witness, judge, jury and lawyers all desperately search for thecorrect page in the correct bundle. The preparation for trial, and the trialitself, could be a great deal simpler, quicker and cheaper if information werecollected and sent electronically, then called up on screen when required.


Let me conclude by putting things in a wider context. The Government is fullybehind the greater use of IT. It has adopted a target that by 2002, 25% ofdealings with the public will be capable of being delivered electronically.

It is also committed to improving the services offered to the public. TheService First initiative, for example, has identified three important targetsfor all government departments and agencies. First, they should be responsive tothe needs of their users. Second, they should work in partnership with otherservices; and third, they should foster and promote innovation. I think it isworth mentioning here that being responsive to customer needs must includegiving them the option, if they would prefer it, of face-to-face, rather thanelectronic services.

It is because of that strong commitment that I believe that we will succeedin developing a more efficient and more effective justice system that enjoysgreater public confidence.

I am also encouraged in my optimism by all of the contributions that havebeen made to the debate sparked off by our consultation paper. The overwhelmingenthusiasm for the greater use of IT is heartening. We have the potential torevolutionise the legal world, the courts, and people’s attitudes towards thelaw. I feel sure that, working together, we will be able to turn radical andinnovative ideas into reality.