The Government Digital Service (GDS) has mounted its assault on the last standalone UK.gov department website – triggering two ministerial interventions to halt the damage amid a public outcry over access to justice.
A crackdown by the increasingly rudderless GDS on the Ministry of Justice's website has led to lawyers and campaigners sounding the alarm after a key legal text was mangled almost beyond comprehension by GDS's one-size-must-fit-all approach to web development.
On top of that, GDS efforts to seize and destroy revamp the MoJ's highly regarded High Court and Court of Appeal listings webpages and email services have imposed substantially poorer alternatives on the public – alternatives even GDS admits are less accessible for the disabled than their predecessors.
The Great Leap Forward-style razing of justice.gov.uk has direct parallels with GDS's web-based empire building back in 2015, which we summarised at the time as "the most unpopular government web redesign ever yet undertaken".
Build it and who cares if they come
The damage began last week, when the Civil Procedure Rules, Family Procedure Rules, and Criminal Procedure Rules were all moved, without notice, off their longstanding homes on justice.gov.uk.
If legislation.gov.uk contains statutes, the skeleton of the law, the procedure rules are its flesh and blood: being laws themselves, the rules define how court cases are carried out and regulate all the nitty-gritty stuff that's too mundane for full-blown statutes debated by Parliament.
GDS decided to impose one of its web redesigns on the various procedure rules' webpages as well as migrating them across, prompting lawyers' trade mag the Law Society Gazette to describe them as "unusable", highlighting "doubts about how litigants in person can navigate their way through the rules in their current format".
One of the reasons you pay a lawyer is because he or she knows the procedure rules and how to navigate them. If you're going it alone in court as a litigant in person, you depend on those rules being published in a clear and accessible format you can follow – something GDS jeopardised.
Justice minister Lord David Wolfson was forced to step in, tweeting last week: "I'm looking into this: it's important that the Civil Procedure Rules (and similar Rules) are easily accessible but also in a comprehensible manner – that's all part of access to justice."
He followed up on Tuesday (23 February) by saying that GDS's pages were being deprecated and the old system restored, tweeting: "While we work to improve the CPR pages on the main http://gov.uk site, we've removed the redirects from http://justice.gov.uk. The original pages are again accessible and operable. I hope that deals with the immediate access to justice issue."
GDS hadn't taken the minister's interventions seriously, however.
They might stop us… go go go!
Perhaps realising that others were about to step in and take control, GDS charged ahead with the next phase of its plan. At 6:39pm last Friday, an email was sent to court list subscribers stating: "The daily court lists you subscribe to are being moved from the judiciary site to GOV.UK. The change should take effect on Monday."
Court listings are daily lists setting out which court cases are going ahead, where and when. The MoJ used to publish these at known, bookmarkable web addresses in plain HTML. If you signed up for free, the MoJ would email you these lists whenever they were updated. A sample of one of those emails (for the Business and Property Courts at the MoJ's Rolls Building) can be found here.
Monday came, bringing chaos. Instead of one email or one webpage for the Business and Property Courts, GDS had decided to publish nine separate PDF files every day, all of which are now at different web addresses as unique uploads to the GDS website.
Sure enough, a public outcry was triggered once again – especially from journalists who rely on these to turn up and report from ongoing cases, but also from lawyers and law firms. It even interrupted an MoJ contractor's supply of High Court listings to its customers, with Courtel Communications posting on its website: "Due to recent publishing changes relating to the transfer of justice.gov.uk content to the gov.uk website, the court lists are temporarily unavailable on courtserve.net."
The Ministry of Justice took the flak this time, tweeting:
The Royal Courts of Justice daily court lists have moved to https://t.co/8cOu0j4tJm. This was needed as the justice website no longer meets mandatory accessibility and security requirements. https://t.co/ThdyoXoWcX 1/3— HMCTS (@HMCTSgovuk) February 23, 2021
Beneath each PDF file on GOV.UK's High Court listings pages is a warning that says: "This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology." Such warnings were not present on the old webpage, as can be seen from the link above to the previous Business and Property Court list.
Web design principles are taught to schoolchildren. It is completely unclear how a government agency which uses in excess of £450m of taxpayers' money per annum has failed to recruit enough people with school-leaver skills to smoothly migrate justice.gov.uk onto a new domain.
A Cabinet Office spokesman, on behalf of GDS, failed to respond to The Register's questions about the unit's doings with the MoJ website and email services, or the humiliating double public slapdown by Lord Wolfson.
An MoJ spokeswoman would only point to the three tweets posted by the MoJ yesterday as public anger over the cockup mounted.
She did not respond when we asked her precisely what standards the new GDS site complied with that the old MoJ in-house services failed to meet.
Why GDS has turned webpages into PDFs is a mystery: the body itself knows full well how useless PDFs are compared to plain old webpages in the 21st century. As we reported in 2018, GDS accessibility man Neil Williams wrote: "Compared with HTML content, information published in a PDF is harder to find, use and maintain… More importantly, unless created with sufficient care PDFs can often be bad for accessibility and rarely comply with open standards."
Open standards – or basic usability by the intended target audience. ®