Digital Courtrooms: Hurrah

June 27, 2013

I suppose I have been in this job too long. When what must surely be a positive development on court technology – the MoJ announcement that courtrooms in England and Wales will be fully digital by 2016 – leaves me depressed, it is probably time to embrace the retirement home, or jump off a cliff. What’s wrong with this latest announcement? Let me count the ways.

1. The writer of the MoJ press release does not know that Crown Court has a capital C for Court. (Yes, that was my number 1 – I said I have been in this job too long.) He or she also has ‘fifteen Mount Snowden’s’ – a use of the grocer’s apostrophe which I can only imagine is a bizarre tribute to Edward Heath. The release is littered with the most awful English; that really should not matter (much), but if they cannot write a press release in English what are their chances of writing a workable policy for the use of technology?

2. Damian Green is quoted as saying ‘it is time we move the court system into the 21st century’. Leaving aside the phrase’s lack of grace (see 1 above), I should like to point out that the court system is already in the 21st century, as are we all. It is not time for this move; it is well past time. Many of us have measured out our lives with courtroom technology reforms that have seen the eternal civil servant snicker – and have seen them come to naught much. Much of what can be achieved could be achieved quickly. The MoJ targets 2016 for the digital courtroom, but 2014 would have been better. 2016 is after the next election – so a new minister, of whatever hue, is pretty well guaranteed to be making an announcement about a digital court initiative in 2017/8, remarking no doubt on the failure of the last chump’s efforts or ‘building on my predecessor’s valuable work’, depending on the result of the said election.

3. The press release includes action points. It is not IT related but one of them is ‘consider creating an independent complaints ombudsman for the CJS’. My ‘actions’ this weekend will include ‘considering’ painting a couple of bedrooms – my wife will be ever so impressed. If they believe that thinking about doing is ‘action’ then the MoJ must think that Winnie the Pooh is a workaholic.

4. One of the genuine positives is the suggestion that the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, s 28 will be implemented. Section 28 provides for the pre-recorded cross-examination of a vulnerable witness. Those new to reforms in this area may well think that I have misnamed the statute – ‘1999, surely not’ – or assume that this new initiative has been given a retro flavour, the Black Forest Gateau of court reform. It really is a reform arising from concerns first expressed in the early 1990s and finally making the statute book in 1999. And here is the killer: we have an {i}announcement{/i} of a {i}pilot{/i} – it is still not actually being implemented.

5. Most of what remains in this reform is old stuff dressed up – a lot of it is not even dressed up. Much of it is the implementation of the shriekingly obvious: ‘sharing digital files’, well whatever next! But there is one shining beacon: the Government is to invest £160 million in all of this ‘for digital courtrooms and improved IT systems across agencies’. That will be new money surely? Believe it if you like.

I could carry on counting but the despair has overwhelmed me.