civil.justice Conference

November 1, 1998

In September 1998 the Lord Chancellor’s Department published a consultationpaper entitled ‘civil.justice’ (pronounced as though it were an Internetaddress ‘civil dot justice’). Responses to this paper had to be in by 18December. As part of the consultation process, on 10 December the LordChancellor’s Department held a conference in London for an invited group ofdelegates from a large range of organisations involved in the legal system.These included Lord Saville, Lord Justice Brooke, the President of the FamilyDivision, circuit judges, barristers, solicitors, and representatives from theJudicial Studies Board, the Inland Revenue, the DTI, the Law Society, the BarCouncil, voluntary organisations, the Data Protection Office, and many otherbodies. We were not given a delegate list – I wish we had been but it wasclear that there was a large number of different organisations and bodiesrepresented.

Andy Maultby, Head of the Information Policy Branch at the Lord Chancellor’sDepartment, chaired the conference, and introduced the speakers. The firstspeaker was to have been Geoff Hoon MP, the Minister of State at the LordChancellor’s Department. As he was not able to be present in the morningsession, we saw and heard a video of a recorded talk. He said that thegovernment wished to carry out a long-term strategy of IT planning, to plan forthe next 10-15 years. The government’s main purpose was to improve and speed upjustice to improve public confidence in it. He said that the Lord Chancellor’sDepartment had already had many constructive and enthusiastic responses to civil.justiceas part of the consultation process.

Next was Professor Richard Susskind. He spoke on the need for a strategicapproach to IT, and on the importance of taking a long-term view. He thenproceeded to give us a vision of what is likely within the next 15 years. Hepredicted the convergence of TV and the Internet; massive improvements in‘bandwidth’; that we will all be talking to our machines; that the Internetwill result in ‘disintermediation’, ie less of a need for intermediariesbetween the public and the provider of services or goods; that the World WideWeb will be our first port of call for banking, home shopping, and interactingwith the government; and the rise of the ‘net generation’ – our children,who have been brought up with the Web. He said that civil.justicechallenged our assumptions as to the way legal services should be delivered. Heended with a rosy-eyed picture of the glorious benefits IT will bring: increasedefficiency and so cutting costs, better productivity and so reduction in delays,improved justice and access to justice, and greater public confidence in thejudicial system.

Ian Hyams, Head of the Information Services Division at the Court Service,presented two demonstrations of the use of video-conferencing supposedly takingplace in about the year 2008. One concerned a cricket injury, the other aconsent order in divorce proceedings. We saw the parties contacting theirsolicitors by video-conference, validating their instructions by a swipe-card,giving evidence by video, and a court hearing taking place with the judge, thesolicitors, and the parties all in separate locations connected by the telephoneline. It was entertaining, and what was clear was that the technology was almostall there now.

After an inspiring vision of the future, and this demonstration oftechnology, we were sharply brought down to earth by Ian Magee, the ChiefExecutive of the Court Service. He explained why there was so muchdisappointment around public sector IT projects, set out the major lessons to belearned from previous projects, and gave some suggestions for making the civil.justiceproject work. These included the use of incremental development, and pilotschemes.

After lunch, Alan Cogbill, Director of Civil Justice and Legal Aid reform atthe Lord Chancellor’s Department, spoke on the business background. He describedhow the improvements in IT are linked to Lord Woolf’s reforms due to be broughtin April 1999, and to new means of financing cases with ‘no-win, no-fee’arrangements. He described the government’s vision of a Community Legal Service,embracing legal aid lawyers, expert advice agencies, local authorities, andpeople’s direct access using IT.

Nic Hopkins, Technical Director of the CCTA (the Central Computer andTelecommunications Agency), spoke on challenging the technology assumptions. Hedescribed many of the new technologies, including the continuing growth of theInternet, digital TV, using voice and video over the Internet, and using smartcards for privacy and authentication. He spoke of the need for both the publicand leaders in society to share the vision of the new justice system, and endedwith a call to balance realism with faith.

Jeremy Crump, Deputy Director of the Cabinet Office Central IT unit, spoke onthe government approach to IT, and the Prime Minister’s target that 25% of allgovernment services should be deliverable electronically through television,telephone or computer, by the year 2002. It was clear that there needed to be aunification of approach between the many different government departments. Hespoke of the overseas experience of government IT in Singapore, Canada, andAustralia, and showed us Web sites of online government in each of thesecountries. The key findings from these countries was that, first, there had tobe strong leadership from the central government for any such projects, second,that there had to be market research, and third, there needed to be a goodrelationship between the public and the private sectors for the providers of theIT. There was then a short time for questions, and Jeremy Crump was ratherthrown by a question by Sir Henry Brooke as to what the government was going todo about making statutes and case law available on the Internet.

David Finn, management consultant with Oracle UK, spoke on ‘bringing it alltogether’. He described the benefits of IT in the 1980s as the automation ofexisting processes, and the benefits in the 1990s as the provision ofinformation via the Web. He foresaw the benefit in the 2000s as the integrationof different technologies, TV and computers; and by 2010 the benefit will beimproved access to justice, with digital TV, public access kiosks, communityservice providers, and the workplace, all linked via the Internet.

Andy Maultby spoke on the reactions which had already been received to civil.justice.Over 850 organisations had been sent a copy of the report. The response had beenextremely encouraging. There was widespread agreement on the new technologies– the World Wide Web, digital TV, and video-conferencing – and theirpotential for access to justice and cost-efficiency. Two of the negativecomments received were that some people may not have access to the technology,or may not have the ability to use it, and that the proposals need more economicanalysis.

There had been very little time for questions in the course of the day, butthere was next a question and answer session, with a panel of Bob Assirati(Chief Executive of the CCTA), Geoff Hoon (now in person), Sir Brian Neill, IanMagee, and Richard Susskind. Lady Tumin asked about quality assurance how onecould check on the quality of the person giving legal advice via the Internet. Iasked how we could be sure that the government would provide adequate finance toimplement and run the new technology. Other questions included: whether thegovernment was going to organise the information on the Internet, or let itdevelop in a haphazard way; what pilot schemes there would be for the use ofmulti-party video conferences; what provision there would be to make morespecialised legal advice available for voluntary organisations; and whether itwould be possible to simplify the law so as to make it easier for the public tounderstand. All these the panel handled with aplomb.

Over lunch I heard some comments that the conference was not a properconsultation, as there had been no time for questions and audience reaction inthe morning sessions, and we were being presented with a fait accompli.Yet the afternoon included a half-hour session for questions; it was clear thatthe government is taking account of the responses it has already received to civil.justice;and we were encouraged to send in our own responses in writing or by e-mail. Myown impression is that the government has a vision, which it is seeking to sharewith a large representative body of those who use the civil justice system, andit is willing to listen to constructive criticism on its proposals.

The conference was, I considered, well balanced. There was a good mixture ofvision, technology, rhetoric and entertainment. Few will forget the video of theman who gets so frustrated with his computer that he smashes the keyboard andpunches the monitor off his desk! In short, the general reaction to theconference as a whole was very supportive, and the message to the government was‘get on with it quickly’.