In A Digital World, The UK Deserves Proper, Adequate, Digital Law

Every year the most senior legal expert in the land, the Lord Chief Justice, is asked to cast their eye over the state of the nation’s justice system – the foundation of democracy and freedom in the land, many of us would agree.

What you may not know is that according to the eminent man, Lord Justice Briggs, in his just-published ‘Report 2015’ is that, like the NHS, the Establishment agrees it’s time our courts went paperless.

More than that, the Report acknowledges (see a useful summary of it on the BBC here) that we’ve let the courts get into a shocking state.

That’s why £780m is being set aside to bring them into the 21st century, with the study singling out outdated technology as a real impediment to progress: “Outdated IT systems severely impede the delivery of justice,” with courts were still using software designed in the 1980s or 1990s “precariously supported by outdated operating systems”.

What’s needed instead: an online court to decide cases worth up to £25,000, accompanied by a system-wide commitment to move off paper, with Lord Justice Briggs saying that the central assumption of his review of the civil courts was strongly flavoured by the realisation that it was “now technically possible to free the courts from the constraints of storing, transmitting and communicating information on paper”.

Yes, we have some major hurdles to get over there – Briggs honestly acknowledges a “substantial, difficult and probably painful transitional period” before the revolutionary move to paperless he wants can be fully achieved.

But for anyone who cares for British justice, this has to be a red letter day. Indeed, it’s long overdue. It’s hard to believe that in the 21st-century we are still talking about this and not just getting on and doing it, frankly.

Delaying justice through paper blockage is simply unacceptable in 2016

I don’t say that just as a technologist. I say it as a citizen, as the majority of the evidence courts are going to be looking at these days is going to be electronic. How can trying the case using antiquated paper-based systems be sensible? It can’t be. What we’re talking about here is better justice through better systems.

I acknowledge that some sceptics will say this paperless move is another form of austerity – a way to drive cost out of the system by getting rid of clerks and other paper-pushers. Well, not all of that is a bad thing, if it makes for a more efficient, fast-moving system; Justice delayed is Justice denied, after all.

I am also sensitive to worries that a drive to automate can be done in an insensitive way – we always need to design paperless systems from the point of view of the user, not the bureaucrat. (We talked about this in July of last year, when we were a little critical of the DVLA’s first go at paperless driver counterparts, if you remember.)

But if paperless means better, faster search in electronic records, that has to translate to better evidential outcome? If you can find the critical words that proved the case one way or another by not having to sift through mountains of paper, that has to be the way forward.

And who can really complain if cost savings lead to people like the CPS being able to say to themselves, ‘Now we can deploy our resources to do what we need to do – prosecute more criminals’?

Let’s make a proper paperless justice system happen to help the taxpayer, the defendant and the prosecutor – as all the stakeholders in the justice system really will benefit.

Howard Frear is Sales and Marketing Director at EASY SOFTWARE UK 

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