News that courtrooms in England and Wales will be fully digital by 2016 highlights the importance that the government is placing on streamlining the justice system. The £160m plan includes measures to improve the speed and efficiency of the criminal justice system, such as secure Wi-Fi in courts that will enable lawyers and judges to access essential documents.
In all, the move heralds a major step towards the mass adoption of IT in the public sector and removal of the huge inefficiencies associated with paper-based systems.
For the UK government, one of the principle objectives of the digital courtroom will be to end “the outdated reliance on paper”. The courts and Crown Prosecution Service currently use 160 million sheets of paper each year – “the equivalent of 15 Mount Snowdons” says Justice Minister Damien Green – and the goal is to remove “literally mountains of paper and turn our criminal justice system into a digital and modern public service”.
The plan, entitled ‘Transforming the Criminal Justice System,’ is to bring together agencies such as the police, Crown Prosecution Service and court service, with improved IT systems sharing information electronically, rather than relying on multiple paper copies.
Wi-Fi in courts will allow the prosecution, defence and court officials to access all relevant documents, helping avoid costly delays and adjournments if documents are lost or misplaced. Digital evidence screens will also allow video and audio evidence to be provided more easily.
Away from the courtroom, a ‘Track My Crime’ system, already successfully tested by Avon and Somerset Constabulary, will enable victims to check online the progress of their case. The police will also save valuable operational time, as they will be able to use mobile devices to access information in real-time and present evidence via video link, instead of always having to physically attend court.
For the traditional justice system, many of the changes being implemented will no doubt seem revolutionary. Yet, in reality, adopting technology to modernise public services in this way is nothing new. It is, however, fraught with difficulties, with the recent costly failure to introduce a single IT system across the whole of the NHS showing how difficult it can be to automate a multi-agency public service.
If the 2016 deadline is to be achieved, there is a lot that needs to be done and the initiative will undoubtedly require an evolutionary strategy to bring together the various stakeholders to share information. Courts already have a lot of experience in using eBibles and eDiscovery, interrogating huge volumes of information in cases involving forensics, for example.
Adopting a ‘big bang’ approach by developing a single bespoke system would be a mistake, for the principal reason that it would be fraught with difficulties. It is also unnecessary, as effective, best-of-breed technologies are already capable of meeting the identified goals of each agency and open software solutions will enable all the integration required. If successfully deployed, this will streamline workflows, reduce capital expenditure and improve court productivity.
In the highly-sensitive area of policing and justice, security concerns must also be overcome. Fortunately, today’s digital document management is inherently much more secure, especially compared with the current, paper-dependent system.
Instead of large bundles of paper files being constantly carried to and from court, with the risk of them being lost, stolen or key contents photographed en-route with sophisticated long-lens cameras, a document management solution will see all data stored in one central repository. This information is protected with strict access rights and a full audit of all actions associated with each document, so they cannot be changed without authorisation – ultimately cracking down on damaging breaches.