One barrister source said that the pain being experienced is indicative of problems arising from the government’s cost saving plans and a failure of those in office to understand the basics of what is required.
The MoJ said that it is working with its suppliers, including Atos and Microsoft, to identify the “root cause of the issues”.
Atos was contracted with the MoJ back in 2014 to deliver its end users computing services, a contract worth £125 million.
The Criminal Bar Association and The Bar Council have both said that the problems are a result of underfunding and a lack of basic infrastructure.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service - which forms part of the MoJ - is currently undertaking a £1.2 billion transformation programme, in a bid to save £265 million a year by modernising processes and introducing new technologies. The Ministry of Justice has said that the problems that have been experienced over the past week are unrelated to the transformation programme.
In a statement, the MoJ said that it is doing all it can to return networks to normal working order.
“During the past week we have experienced major IT network issues. We apologise to those who have been affected. We know this is unacceptable and how deeply frustrating this has been for our staff and users.
“Network access has been restored to a large number of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sites today. The main suppliers of the affected technology, including Atos and Microsoft, are working hard to restore access for the remaining sites and users. Please be assured that we are doing everything possible to resolve the situation and we will continue to do so until full service is restored.”
The Criminal Bar Association said that the courts’ Xhibit system is down in many places, which might affect future payment of barristers’ fees. It is advising that barristers ensure all court clerks, or better still judges, sign off a manuscript record of attendance and the nature of the hearing. Assurance is being sought that legal aid claims will not be rejected for this period.
Changes made overnight by suppliers Microsoft and Atos have improved the service, according to the MoJ. It states that the situation as it currently stands is:
- email and internet access is working across the estate via Wi-Fi and on mobile devices
- the prison estate is unaffected and contingency plans are in place in the National Probation Service to mitigate impacts
- reformed online services such as divorce and probate have continued to work throughout the disruption
- hearings are continuing to progress in our courts (although the MoJ acknowledged that “extra burden” has been placed on court users still without network access)
- 75 per cent of court staff are back on working IT systems
A separate issue last week that meant that 12.5% of users of the Criminal Justice secure email system has now been resolved.
The MoJ said that teams will “continue to work around the clock” to resolve the remaining issues. It added:
“The network disruption initially affected devices connecting to the main MoJ network. This network is also used by HMCTS and other MoJ agencies and a number of arms-length bodies.
“Together with our suppliers Atos and Microsoft, we are working hard to identify the root cause of the issues.
“It is not the result of a cyber attack and there has been no loss of data.”
The Secret Barrister, an anonymous Twitter account and author of the book ‘Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken’, commented on the situation and said:
The entire digital infrastructure of the courts has been broken for days. Phones aren’t working, court computers are offline, email is down.
Imagine the headlines if it were the NHS.
But it’s only justice, so no one cares.
No accountability, no lessons learned. https://t.co/mnNdMxGnuh
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) January 21, 2019
One barrister source also told diginomica/government:
“There’s no money in the system. Across the board there have been ‘savings’ made by people in offices who know nothing about what’s truly necessary to run the courts smoothly.
“The ‘savings’ they think they’re making are in fact costing the system far, far more in the long run...because nothing works and then court time is wasted. An ineffective court day can cost thousands of pounds.”
They added, as an example, that the introduction of video links to prison were intended to save money and time, but that video links often fail and rarely work first time around, causing costly delays.
The Criminal Bar Association said:
“This is more evidence, if any was needed, of the chronic underfunding of the CJS. It’s us, solicitors, court staff and Judges who are left to deal with the mess, and witnesses, defendants, jurors and legal professionals who suffer the consequences.”
Whilst Richard Atkins QC, chair of the Bar Council, said:
“"I have no doubt that the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS are doing all that they can to rectify this major problem, but it illustrates how vulnerable the delivery of justice is with reliance on weak IT systems in our courts.
"Whilst HMCTS is moving forward with its programme of online justice, these problems would suggest that more investment in the basics is needed first. We cannot have a justice system that comes to a shuddering halt the moment the IT does not work properly."