Is there Life On Mars for digital justice?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 7, 2013
Three months late and hardly adorned with bells and whistles, the UK Ministry of Justice rolled out is first Digital by Default service. What else is in the pipeline and when might we see evidence that there is Life on Mars on the MOJ?

The REAL Life on Mars crew

The UK government's commitment to moving government services to Digital By Default mode passed a sort of milestone last week when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) put the first of its digital services to live.

It was three months behind schedule, but measured against the metrics of 'traditional' IT roll outs, that's hardly noticeable frankly.

So what is the first digital service up and running. Well it's a pretty basic web tool to help people fill out Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) instructions.

Ministers announced that a web tool to help people fill in applications for lasting power of attorney (LPA) would help thousands of citizens each year.

An online process for granting lasting power of attorney was proposed last July in a consultation by the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG).

What's been delivered is far from the fully online service that it might be and upon which the government has opened a consultation.

But ministers and officials are clearly just happy to be underway down the digital route with the MoJ boasting that this should be seen as the first of the "flagship digital services" to be delivered.

Other digital by default projects at the MoJ include:

  • Improving the online process for making civil claims, including money claims and possession to make it 'simpler and swifter'.
  • Online payments of the new fees for employment tribunals.
  • Online bookings for prison visits by pre-approved members of the public.

Regardless of how the online LPA tool is pitched, its arrival was somewhat overshadowed by a far grander plan to give the entire criminal justice system in England and Wales a digital makeover by 2016.

At a planned cost of £160 million, the government wants to see:

  • secure wireless technology in the majority of 500 courthouses.
  • prosecution, defense, judiciary and court staff able to access all necessary court documents online.
  • digital screens to present evidence on.
  • the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and courts collaborating to create a common IT platform
  • the creation of a 'CJS wide digital data store' for information on the cases going through the CJS which all parties can access.
  • smart mobile devices issued to police officers to provide access to real-time intelligence and local information to enable them to start building case files from the street.
  • case timeliness data published on the website so the public can see how long cases are taking in their local area.
  • the majority of high-volume, low-level "regulatory" cases, such as TV licence evasion and many traffic offences, dealt with remotely, away from traditional magistrates' court rooms.

Damien Green

Justice Minister Damien Green stated:

"Every year the courts and Crown Prosecution Service use roughly 160 million sheets of paper. Stacked up this would be the same as 15 Mount Snowdons, literally mountains of paper."

(For non-UK readers, Mount Snowdon is a 3,560 feet high mountain in Wales.)

Green went on:

"If we are to win in the global race this must change. It is time we move the court system into the 21st Century. This investment will help us get rid of our outdated paper-based system, and turn our criminal justice system into a digital and modern public service.

"Digitisation and simplification of criminal justice systems will ensure that scarce police resources can be used more effectively for the benefit of victims and communities."

A lot of the thinking is being driven by the public sector version of the private sector meme about people being able to use systems at home that are far superior to those in the workplace.

Green noted:

"When they're at home, everyone who works in the criminal justice system can enjoy the full benefits of the 21st century. Their desktops, iPads and laptops can talk to each other instantaneously - opening the world up at the flick of a finger.

"But at work, it feels like Life On Mars - the show that is, not the song. They're confronted with cumbersome and incompatible systems that actually make their jobs harder, not simpler. Too much time spent at the photocopier, not combating crime. Too much time doing data entry, not out protecting the public."

(For non-UK readers, Life on Mars was an excellent BBC TV drama about a 21st century policeman who has a bad accident and finds himself back in the 1970s, facing up to the prejudices, sexism and now politically incorrect practices of the age. The (thankfully) short-lived US version doesn't bear comparison.)

Some of this has been piloted already in Birmingham Magistrates Court which lays claim to being the first paperless courtroom in the UK and has prosecuted over 80 cases since March using wi-fi and various digital technologies.

Bleeding edge of modernity

It must also noted that this is not the first time a UK governing administration has attempted to 'tech-up' the justice system. Back in 2002, the Labour government under Tony Blair had a go at a joined-up justice system programme which the Prime Minister - ever eager to be seen at the bleeding edge of tech - pledged would take the courts "out of the dark ages".

The £1 billion (at 2002 prices!) Criminal Justice IT (CJIT) programme was part of a national strategy for - quaint alert! - e-government called Transformational Government.

This was the same government that commissioned that totem to all public sector IT failures - the doomed and monstrously wasteful NHS National IT Programme.

CJIT wasn't quite as bad as that - what could be? - but it certainly didn't deliver then goods. Maybe UK justice pulled clear of the dark ages, but the Dickensian Messrs Jarndyce and Jarndyce would not be too disturbed by the creeping onset of Blairite modernity…


Will it work this time around?

Earlier this year, Green unveiled a national Criminal Justice Board, which features a senior judge, a police and crime commissioner (PCC) representative and College of Policing chief executive Alex Marshall, to develop the strategy and oversee its delivery.

Excellent. One of the failures of the NHS programme was the almost complete absence of involvement by front line practitioners in the health service.

So systems were planned without input from those who would have to use them. Or would have had to use them had there been a mass roll out - but that's another story.

I can't help noticing a lack of a high level IT advisor/specialist in this mix. It might be useful to have someone on board whose tech skills extend beyond the iPad Mini?

That said, the MoJ has staffed up a 40-strong Digital Service Division to tackle the wider Digital by Default targets. It's a bold initiative and one that's badly needed to drag the UK justice system into an age roughly adjacent to the 21st century.

For non UK readers - particularly those in the US where Nancy Grace fulminates judgementally on cable TV - and heaven help any justice systems that relies on this 'shock jock' horror -  it comes as a shock to realise that TV cameras aren't allowed in UK court rooms, let alone digital databases.

So, full marks for ambition at this stage. But we'll come back to this a lot before we're done I suspect.

Image credit: BBC/Acorn Media

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