Are we ready to go Digital?


Recent changes to court proceedings in attempts to modernise the UK legal system has resulted in a significant shift from paper to digital. These changes will mean a complete overhaul of the present legal culture of traditional paper based processes. The budget for digitisation stands at around £700 million. For some this alteration is welcomed as they feel the previous system was outdated, time consuming and inefficient. However, many are equally unclear as to what the benefits of this digitisation process are and how they can realistically benefit from them. As we continue, we shall explore the advantages and disadvantages of digitisation and how chambers, clerks and barristers can maximise the benefit they will get from this change.

The Crown Court CPP (Common Platform Programme) is an online case-management system with case progression taking place online. It builds on the digitisation of Criminal Court rooms and will incorporate the Crown Court Digital Case System (DCS). The CPP aims to reduce the need to handle paper based case material across the CJS (Criminal Justice System) thereby reducing case time, work duplication and administrative errors. Moving cases to a digital system means case material is accessible online by probation services, prosecution, defence, judges and clerks. Moreover, due to this change material can be prepared and presented digitally. This can allow for more consistent, legible evidence. Through the CPP the ability to highlight key arguments and pieces of evidence and link these documents together has been provided. With a selection of online training modules, webinars and drop-in sessions the switch to digital has already begun. Although this isn’t the first attempt for courts to go digital, (think of the 2009 Camberwell pilot) the lessons learnt previously have been implemented to ensure the success of this change. The CPP has been supported within the Leveson Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings displaying the level of confidence in the CPP to reform the CJS.

The main reason behind the digitisation programme is first and foremost to modernise the court system, (reducing paper use and shedding traditional outdated habits) but almost as important is the need to speed up the court process. The plans to digitise have suggested several advantages – as previously mentioned, the digital shift allows for accessibility for all across the court system enabling a quicker, more informed and easier process. Not only does digitisation provide access to everyone involved simultaneously, the lack of paper saves extraneous admin work, paper costs and prevents information loss and misfiling as all the inputted data is in a secure digital format. In addition, digitisation can facilitate improved and instantaneous communication between parties making for a smoother, more informed court procedure.

Other notable efficiencies of digitisation are the cost and time savings in regards to travel. The establishment of video links between victims, defendants, witnesses and judges will lead to a reduction of transportation costs and time saved from not having to travel can be used for more productive tasks. In addition, video conferencing can reduce court costs and free up time for more serious cases to be addressed in the court. This has the potential to significantly reduce case duration which previously stood at 3.5 months. The efficiency of the change is beneficial for those within the law profession but also for the wider public. Reducing case time means people spend less time being tried, acting as a juror or attending court cases. Moreover, witnesses; experts and victims will spend less time within the courts and travelling to court proceedings. Of course there is also the open discussion around whether using video can remove some of the pressure placed on those giving testimony by physically being in the court room.

Despite the aforementioned positives of this change, a few challenges are also present. Firstly, some barrister’s do not see digitisation as a solution to speeding up court processes. This is because it has been suggested that no show defendants and late submissions of evidence by the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) are the leading causes of wasted court time and ultimately high court costs. If this is the case, digitisation would do little in improving efficiency and saving money as manual administrative work is not the cause of the problem.

Furthermore, the potentially most daunting impact the change will create is the effect on revenue. The initial cost of implementing digitisation across the board may seem intimidating as many courts currently don’t have the necessary basic IT infrastructure needed to support it. Due to this, implementing the change would require almost starting from scratch. New servers, new PC’s, new IT infrastructure – most court houses will require significant re-investment to its IT setup to become fully digital. In addition, the cost of giving judges digital equipment could also prove costly. This being said, it is expected that the initial costs of the change (about £700 million) will be significantly outweighed by the long-term efficiency and savings forecasted at around £200 million a year after 2020.

Another plausible challenge is online security. Going digital removes physical risk whilst creating a data set filled with sensitive information that could be threatened by hackers or online attacks. This poses a security risk and the newspaper headlines made of nightmares. As a judiciary system security measures and hazard prevention methods must be watertight and put in place to prevent people accessing or damaging crucial court details. In addition, cyber security would need to be of the highest level, enforced to protect accidental file corruption, deletion and prepare for file recovery.  Whilst this remains fact, a key reason for implementing the CPP is that it can supersede the current ‘secure email services’ (CJSM-Criminal Justice System e-Mail). Many problems have occurred with the current system regarding reliability and performance so the CPP aims to replace this.

Digitisation (and video testimony) could reduce the judge’s exposure to witnesses and defendants thereby limiting their time to assess their character. As every case is different, judge discretion is key. This being said and as mentioned previously, digital based courts may reduce the anxiety and fear of innocent defendants that may be misconstrued as guilt. Furthermore, this can remove assumptions placed on nervous or shy witnesses. For example, lack of eye contact which may previously have been viewed as a lack of honesty would be eliminated.

For millennials, digitisation is natural – they do not know a world without the internet or mobile devices. Older age groups however, particularly the baby boom generation, may struggle going digital. This means that they will need time to adjust and learn how to conduct their day-to-day work digitally. Such a drastic change may cause discomfort or confusion throughout the legal system. Fortunately, the Government plan to “Go digital” comes with provisions to provide training and assistance with the transition – enabling those struggling to understand how the CPP will work.

Although digitisation may seem like one of the biggest transitions the UK legal service has undergone, we must recall that the legal system in itself was a massive change from the previous personal settling of disputes. Through these changing times it should be remembered that our system is based on professionalism, truth and justice so regardless of the challenges we are able to continue delivering the best legal service possible.

Stephen Currie, Business Analyst,  Advanced Legal

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