Government Promises Digital Courtrooms By 2016

A major IT overhaul of the British judiciary system is on the way, after the government promised a nationwide rollout of ‘digital courtrooms’ by 2016.

The promise was made by Justice Minister Damian Green as he launched a £160m investment plan, geared to improve the speed and efficiency of the British judicial system.

Digital Courtrooms

The plan, Transforming the Criminal Justice System‘, seeks to end the court service’s ‘outdated’ reliance on paper, according to Damian Green.

The ‘digital court’ concept has already been tested at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court since March this year.

The government was keen to stress that the plan involves senior personnel from the criminal justice system, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and court service. The idea is to improve the IT systems used by the different judicial agencies so that information can be shared “electronically, securely and efficiently.”

Specifically, the £160m investment plan will see the installation of secure Wi-Fi networks in the majority of the 500 court houses of England and Wales. This will allow the prosecution, defence, judiciary and court staff to access all necessary court documents electronically. It will also allow them to access back-office systems from the courtroom itself, in order to prevent adjournments caused by missing information.

Another feature of the plan will come from the installation of ‘Digital Evidence Screens’, so defence and prosecution teams can present evidence digitally rather than relying on paper copies. According to the Ministry of Justice, huge delays can occur if paper-based evidence is lost or misplaced. The screens will also be used to present CCTV footage and other video and audio evidence to the court.

The plan will also see the arrival of new presentation and collaboration software for courtrooms, in order to allow the prosecution, defence, and judiciary to easily navigate complex Crown court cases. The plan will also see new funding for IT systems where needed “to increase digital workings and reduce the use of paper in the system by the police and court system.”

Mountains Of Paper

“Every year the courts and Crown Prosecution Service use roughly 160 million sheets of paper,” explained Damian Green in a statement. “Stacked up this would be the same as fifteen 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,” Green added. “This will help provide swift and efficient justice, treating victims and witnesses with the care and consideration they deserve.”

The plan also proposes embedding digital technology in everyday working. This expands on the current system where the police digitally transfer case information to the CPS. Essentially, it will mean the police on the street using their mobile devices, with access to real-time intelligence and local information, in order to start building case files from the start of the case. They will then give evidence via video-link, which will become the norm, rather than having to appear in person in court.

The plan also aims to shunt the majority of “high-volume, low-level regulatory cases,” such as TV licence evasion and many traffic offences, away from  traditional magistrates’ courtrooms so they are free to deal with more serious cases.

And the plan aims to introduce an element of transparency, with the extension of the ‘Track My Crime’ system to other police areas. This initiative was launched by Avon and Somerset Constabulary, and allows victims to check the progress of their case online. It also allows the police to send updates to victims, in order to update them on their case.

Other elements of the plan cater for the care and consideration for victims and witnesses, by making it easier to provide video evidence or pre-recorded evidence for vulnerable victims and witnesses.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the changes (if implemented fully by all forces) could save around 4.5 million officer hours a year. That includes charging suspects by post saving two hours of police time per suspect – some 300,000 officer hours per year.

And it has emerged that the plan will see the creation of a Police ICT Company to improve existing police IT systems and support forces who want to invest in new technologies like smartphones and develop apps.

This comes despite there already being a police ICT procurement company, an idea first mooted by Home Secretary Theresa Mayback back in July 2011.

That company was created in July 2012, despite initial opposition from police chiefs.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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