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UK Courtrooms will be made fully digital by 2016

By 2016, all courtrooms in England & Wales will be made fully digital, the government has confirmed – ridding of what they also called “an outdated reliance on paper”. The changeover will cost one hundred and sixty million pounds, with the ambition to revolutionise courts in terms of speed and efficiency.

Part of the plans is to secure wi-fi in courts so lawyers and judges can access all necessary documents, one of the reasons Justice Minister Damian Green referred to the developments as turning it into a “modern public service”. With the aim for information to be shared electronically, securely and efficiently across agencies in the criminal justice system, for example, a file not being in court will no longer lead to an adjournment.

You might be asking yourself just how plausible this is, but don’t fret, the system has been trialled in a “concept court” at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court since March. In this period it has been required to deal with around 80 differing cases, from shoplifting to offenses of violence, all varying in severity. The criminal justice system has been continually criticised for its delays in the past, and it is a sign of the government’s intentions that, in an age of austerity, they’re willing to invest £160m to digitise courtooms nationwide.

Mr Green, Justice Minister, said: “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. 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“This investment will help us get rid of our outdated paper-based system, and turn our criminal justice system into a digital and modern public service.”

However, not everybody was so supportive of the development, in particular, some lawyer’s have doubted the government’s investment, expressing fears about security and the massive dangers which would transpire if it were to break down.

Greg Foxsmith, a criminal advocate, said: “If the system crashes, you are not just talking about losing a document or a file, you could have a complete meltdown of the system within a court.

“And if security is not watertight, highly sensitive and confidential information could be accessed. The history of government procurement of IT systems is not a happy one.”

Transforming the Criminal Justice System – the name of their action plan – aims to build on the existing use of technology. CPS lawyers have, for some time, worked from tablet devices and documents have been sent to defence lawyers via a method of secure ‘email’.

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Take action plan for takes this on and includes:

  • Encouraging the police to use mobile devices, with access to real-time intelligence and local information, to start building case files from the street
  • Police evidence via video-link to become the norm not the exception
  • Legislating to enable the majority of high-volume, low-level “regulatory” cases, such as TV licence evasion and many traffic offences, to be dealt with away from traditional magistrates’ courtrooms, which means freeing up the courts to deal with more serious cases
  • Supporting the extension of the Track My Crime system to other police areas. This initiative was launched by Avon and Somerset Constabulary and gives victims the opportunity to check the progress of their case online, including the name of the police officer with responsibility. It allows the police to send updates to victims on their case

The plan also is aiming to enable the police to use mobile devices, with access to real-time intelligence for building digital case files from the street and giving evidence via video link.

Back in May, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude cited criminal justice as an example of poor system correspondence. “Across the criminal justice system, for example, there is very little connectivity across the IT systems,” he said, citing the need for a revamp and a redevelopment clearly.

The Crown Prosecution Service has long supported a digital development within the system (since April 2012), but no funding was made available to defence lawyers, which has held back taking it on as a serious development. However, there seems to be no change, as Green’s latest plans also seem to leave out funding for defence lawyers once again. Speaking to the Law Gazette, Green said government funding will not be available to help defence practitioners update their IT systems to enable them to engage in the new digital system.

In its Guidelines on digital working for Defence Practitioners document, published in October 2012, the Criminal Justice System clearly stated that it will be necessary to use its secure email service, which requires users to comply with the ISO 270002 data protection standard and use FIPS 197 or FIPS 140-2 encryption.

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