VPDH, ECP and ETMP: Court Technology That Works

April 30, 2004

Minshull Street Crown Court is not an obvious place for innovation. Surrounded by old Manchester, it is the very image of staid Northern grit, albeit with wigs and gowns and nervous smokers awaiting sentence. But it is at Minshull Street Crown Court that I had the pleasure of seeing technology applied by a court in a realistic and sensible attempt to improve the provision of justice – and I came away convinced that the enlightened judge and dedicated court staff have succeeded.

The Problem with Normal PDHs

His Honour Judge Barry Woodward is the presiding judge at the court. It was no great insight on his part to recognise that the reforms which were introduced in 1995, requiring the court to take more control of the conduct of the initial stages of a criminal trial, had not achieved all that they might. There were still too many trials where the case had to be adjourned because one side or the other had not met the timetable set down in the plea and directions hearings for things like the adducing of expert evidence. The idea, Judge Woodward observed, was that dates were fixed and “snap, trials would go on and there is no problem – sadly it just did not happen like that”. The judge set the timetable but the parties governed compliance themselves – dates passed and things were left to slide by busy practitioners on both sides. Cumulative delays led to about 30% of cases having an application for vacation of the fixed hearing date and, even more seriously, five or six ineffective trials each week, where major costs were incurred. While the traditional remedy for ineffective trials was overlisting (ie listing extra cases to fill anticipated gaps), that too had its drawbacks, not least the stress for defendants and witnesses where a case was not heard.

But for the court to manage compliance with the timetables effectively would require a major injection of staff resources – Judge Woodward estimates that 20 case progression officers would be needed. It’s simple mathematics: 3,000 cases a year with three or four directions each means that tracking compliance is a major undertaking. Moreover, the directions are only as good as the information received about the case. The expectation expressed in the relevant Practice Direction that counsel briefed in the case actually attend the Plea and Directions Hearing was rarely fulfilled. That failure to attend undermines the effect of the hearings but is entirely predictable given the difficulty in balancing the time of experienced counsel when PDHs are fixed in advance and the low fee payable for attendance. Judge Woodward quoted the Auld Report which took a negative view of the PDHs in practice (“unnecessary and misused”) and indicated that there might be the potential for improvements by the application of technology. There had been experiments with paper PDHs but these had not been all that successful.

As things stood in Manchester, half a dozen cases a day were being listed for mention where difficulties had arisen in the course of the progression of the case to trial and oral PDHs were taking up time that might have been used for the hearing of 100 extra cases. Even the system of recording orders at oral hearings was flawed as scribbled notes of the orders made were often the source of confusion rather than clarification with different versions competing for judicial endorsement and the possibility arose for issues to be missed.

The Genesis of the VPDH

Some three years ago, the VPDH experiment began. Judge Woodward was an early convert to the benefits of IT and was invited to take part in a pilot with a small budget. The initial proposal was rooted in the use of e-mail but, when alternatives were discussed with practitioners, the suggestion was made that the Web was the key to providing a system which might greatly ease the work of the court and help practitioners too. The working group looking at the possibilities included John Hammond, who was then a barristers’ clerk but had once worked for Meridian. He used his technical skills to create a mock-up of what might be achieved.

There was a classic combination of the application of technical vision with a firm understanding of what was actually necessary for PDHs to be effective. It is fair to say that the system was re-engineered to make the most of the possibilities which an IT solution brought with it. A system of online questionnaires was developed and, after a great deal of sacrifice of spare time from Judge Woodward, John Hammond and others, the proposals were shared with the Court Service and the senior judiciary. The then Lord Chancellor was impressed and described himself as “on board”. The basic scheme was set up with responsibility for it being transferred to the LCD and the expertise available from EDS, the IT services supplier to the Court Service, became available and the relevant protocol was created.

The VPDH System

Judge Woodward describes the VPDH as an interactive system which replicates what happens in court at a good oral hearing where the issues requiring directions are relatively straightforward. Cases involving three or more defendants are excluded from the system but cases are not barred merely because of the level of seriousness of the charge. The system is to some extent based on a recognition of two factors. First that, despite lots of special pleading, the overwhelming majority of cases require directions from a limited number of predictable options – Judge Woodward takes the view that 90% or more of cases have areas for action in common. Second, that not all the input needs to come from people in the same room and that parties’ representatives do not even have to make their input at the same time.

VPDHs are rather like deal rooms. The EDS have heavily amended the eRoom product from documentum. The relevant case file contains all the data in the case and allows access by means of a PIN number. Random password generators are distributed to all the registered participants, mainly local solicitors and barristers. (Indeed, loss of password generators was one small glitch with the system – I came across one note in the course of my visit which indicated that barrister X had lost his password again “that’s one lost for every PDH he has done”.) The system also has discussion groups so that, for example, the parties can exchange views in areas which are not viewable by the judge.

“You create a protocol where people have a certain amount of time to undertake certain actions. For example, solicitors have to indicate the witnesses that are required for a trial and can go online within 14 days of committal and give their provisional list; the police can then establish the availability of witnesses and that information is indicated online and is accessible to the court when it fixes a date. Even something as simple as that was previously often not dealt with until the PDH in court. The fixed protocol ensures that people do things on time and the system itself is built so as to send out reminders when steps are imminent and then send out a further e-mail if the step is missed. The e-mail shows a link to the relevant case and clicking on that link takes the user to the case once the security check has been negotiated. It means that solicitors and barristers do not have to keep a diary of every action they have to take, so the system helps them too. One example of the effectiveness of the system is that previously solicitors provided their list in only 25% of cases – now with VPDH it is 100%.”

The simple questionnaire also requires information about plea and whether the solicitor has sufficient instructions. If there are not sufficient instructions then an oral hearing is required – but defendants do not want to have to attend court when they are on bail and the days when those in custody relished a trip out are now gone so there is generally co-operation. Where full instructions have not been supplied but are anticipated, the solicitor can apply online for an extension and the judge would normally then grant a further seven days. Once briefed, counsel too can access the online case and indicate any requirements and his or her availability – a factor which has been given greater prominence.

Judge Woodward took me through the forms that had to be completed by the prosecution and defence. One feature of the form is that it allows little opportunity for answers beyond “Yes/No” and an indication of dates. The experience is that the opportunity to add non-specific information will sometimes result in an unintelligible answer. The online form is now used at all hearings – “it is because we have had to apply our minds to dealing with cases online that we have realised that a formalised system can be used” commented Judge Woodward “it is not a procedure which requires a formalised approach”.

The judge simply views the responses to the questions and generates his orders in response. If he feels that there is insufficient information he can put the matter back for seven days and seek further information and make the orders at a later date. A simple program then produces a standard order form which is distributed to the parties’ representatives, currently by post.

Electronic Case Progression

Judge Woodward described Electronic Case Progression (ECP) as a very simple system but one which had never been tried in the court system before. Minshull Street is piloting the system.

Once orders from PDHs or VPDHs are recorded (the latter automatically), ECP takes over. It identifies every occasion when an order is due to be complied with. A single Case Progression Officer can monitor a large number of cases using the system as it uses a traffic-lights code to highlight missed and impending dates. The CPO can call up all cases where orders are at amber (the eight day warning) and direct energy at ensuring compliance only where problems are arising or in danger of arising. The completion of steps can be recorded online and again automatic reminders can be sent out by e-mail. Applications for extra time can be dealt with very quickly and the need for numerous mentions is removed. Every order and the condition of each case is monitored for solicitors and the CPS, reducing the need for their own records.

My subsequent visit to the case progression coalface left me very impressed with the system. Far from depersonalising the process, there was a great deal of communication between the parties and the court and much more opportunity for difficulties to be ironed out. For busy practitioners who are often in court, e-mail communication is ideal, and of course e-mail is a great equaliser – there is no need to negotiate past reception to see if you can ask “the great man” a question. Moreover the system offers practitioners an increased opportunity to manage their time and make the most effective use of it.

Good Impressions and Future Developments

The next stage is to draw in lower courts and the police so that cases can be electronically managed from cradle to grave. That system, the Electronic Trial Management Pilot, is also being piloted at Minshull Street and is the Holy Grail for efficient administration of criminal justice but it remains in development.

I suspect that its development will be a success. There is an air of commitment at the court which does credit to the consultative atmosphere in which the project has developed. And there is a firm recognition that the IT is actually making lives easier rather than imposing another burden. Nikki Ryan, who is one of the people working on the development of ECP and Electronic Trial Management, has previous experience as a court clerk dealing with crises and seemed to me a natural cynic. So the fact that she was evidently impressed by what had been achieved left its mark with me, and she was little short of amazed by one crucial statistic: in January there were no ineffective trials at Minshull Street – many thousands of pounds and enormous anguish were thereby saved.

Quite simply the system has been made to work. I note that Effective Trial Management is due for its national roll-out in April 2005 but I know how easy it is for these things to slip; I strongly urge all those capable of affecting that decision to ensure that its roll-out is not delayed.