England's top judge lashes out at 'Science Museum' grade court IT

Then says digitisation is working well... you sure, m'lud?

England and Wales’ top judge has moaned that HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) IT systems “more obviously belong in the Science Museum” than courtrooms across the land.

In a speech delivered at the London HQ of law firm Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer last night, the Lord Chief Justice, Ian Burnett, described how courts’ systems “sit in splendid technological isolation, unable to talk to each other or anyone in the outside world.”

Taking a full swing at both the government and the civil service agency charged with keeping legal IT up to date, Lord Burnett of Maldon complained that if HMCTS had “done more than adopt piecemeal measures” or “pursued the sort of approach followed by any efficient and forward looking commercial organisation, even local authorities and Government… we would have reaped technology’s benefits.”

“A failure to modernise at the right time only entrenched efficiency and outdated systems, almost all paper-based,” lamented the head of the judiciary. Attempts to digitise the courts have been in motion, and largely resisted by government thanks to the eyewatering upfront costs, for decades.

Lord Burnett’s comments come as the court system faces yet another round of “modernisation” aimed at saving £265m by 2023, despite an upfront estimated expenditure of around £1bn. Public spending watchdogs have previously barked at HMCTS for its plans to move everything to digital systems, including holding hearings over video links – a painful enough experience in a business setting, let alone when your liberty might hang in the balance.

The most senior judge in the land also highlighted HMCTS' Common Platform Programme in his speech, saying it "is in development and beginning its early trials". He said its aim "is to introduce a system used by the police, Crown Prosecution Service, courts, legal professionals and probation which gives each player access only to material relevant for their purposes," boasting, "It should squeeze most paper out of the criminal justice system altogether."

The Common Platform Programme has in fact burned hundreds of millions of pounds, is already years overdue and is expected to cost at least £270m by 2020, as we exclusively revealed last year.

High Court hearings are still conducted with reference to thousands of hard-copy pages of documents in legal "bundles", in spite of systems already existing (such as the digital CE-file document filing system) which were intended to replace centuries-old paper-shuffling techniques.

Rather unfortunately, in his speech Lord Burnett also drew specific attention to the Business and Property Courts which sit in London’s Rolls Building, supposedly England’s most technologically advanced court. Citing this as an example of digitisation success, the Lord Chief Justice said last night that these courts "now require everything to be filed and exchanged digitally".

In fact, HMCTS publicly warns everyone involved in Business and Property Court cases: "Parties appearing in the applications court must note that the applications court works from hard copy documents. The judge does not work from CE-file. Accordingly, in addition to the usual lodged bundles, any additional documents such as skeleton arguments or late-provided documents (whether or not they are also filed via CE-file) should be made available in hard copy."

Not all is doom and gloom, however. One notable success of both court digitisation and society’s changing attitudes is the availability of online divorce applications, which the Lord Chief Justice noted has slashed rejection rates from 40 per cent to 0.5 per cent, a huge improvement for all concerned.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service has promised to supply us a response to the Lord Chief Justice’s comments and we will update this article once we receive it. Lord Burnett’s 2018 BAILII speech can be read in full on the judiciary website. (PDF) ®

Updated to add

A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson told The Register: “We are investing £1bn to reform the justice system – making courts easier to use, more efficient and fit for the digital age.

“We have already delivered: a new in-court system which records the results of cases digitally and instantly; a fully paperless system in conjunction with Transport for London – which means thousands of cases involving fare evasion are dealt with more swiftly and effectively; and a digital programme which will allow defendants, victims, witnesses and professional users to share legal documents and cases online.

“In the civil courts people can now: make a small money claim online – with over 3,000 claims issued in the first month, cases moving through more quickly, and user satisfaction over 80% during the pre-launch pilot; apply for a divorce online – which has cut errors in application forms from 40 per cent to less than 1 per cent, saving people time and trouble during a traumatic time; and apply for probate online – which has also cut errors, speeds up the process, and has a satisfaction rate of more than 90 per cent.”

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