The Lord Chief Justice has said the country has a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to build a proper court IT system, and failing to make a success of it would be a “disaster”.
In a strongly-worded speech highly critical of previous court IT failures, Lord Thomas said that if the Courts Service and the judiciary squandered the £300-£400m promised by the Treasury, it would “not be forgotten” and “we would not be given that money again”.
Last month the Treasury approved a ‘one-off package of investment’ for the IT systems of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, which should average up to £75m every year from 2015/16 to 2020/21.
Delivering the annual Society for Computers and the Law lecture at the offices of City firm Clyde & Co last night, Lord Thomas said that one of the “huge problems” facing the IT modernisation programme was the “ludicrous” belief of some people that giving evidence over the internet was not permissible.
He said that although there were some situations where security was an issue, the view taken by decision-makers now was that “we must move to an internet-based system as soon as possible”.
He said that it was essential to anticipate futures changes in IT and Lord Justice Leveson had been given the job of looking at what technology might be available in 2016 and 2017.
He said this would include the use of internet-based video conferencing for pre-trial hearings. The LCJ said he also hoped that in the future trials could be held “without anyone actually coming to court”.
It was essential to be clear about what the new system would actually do, to make sure it changed court processes rather than just technology, and was “easy to use and operate”.
The LCJ warned that the “terrible danger” with lawyers was to claim that they had developed a new system and “all we need is someone to do the boring bits”.
Earlier, he explained in detail how the decision, which he described as “disastrous”, was made to introduce the Woolf reforms before the IT systems were ready.
“There was a complete misunderstanding and mismatch between what those who administered the system thought was necessary and what the judiciary wanted,” Lord Thomas said. “The vision of Lord Woolf ended with the spending cuts of 2003-4.”
Lord Thomas said “not much” had been done in the last 10 years, and highlighted some of the failings that had resulted.
He described the current way in which the court business was carried out as “expensive and inefficient” and said people did not understand why things could not be done online.
“Filing is a task which requires some degree of skill,” he said. “Once papers are misfiled, they are gone forever. At many hearings, including the Court of Appeal, papers are filed on time but do not reach the court in time for the hearing”.
It was “extraordinary”, Lord Thomas said, that outside the Commercial Court the only meaningful form of data collection was manually looking through files.
“Our international competition has moved forward,” he warned. “We simply cannot go on as we are.”
The Lord Chief Justice said there were nine lessons to be learned from the failures of the past:
– Security of funding ( “I very much hope this lesson has been learnt” );
– An integrated approach across the civil and criminal justice systems (which had been agreed)
– Joint governance (so that judges participated in all decisions);
– A clear idea of what was needed;
– A rigorous system of procurement;
– Anticipating technological change;
– Continuity and a clear path ahead;
– A process built around IT, not IT built around existing processes; and
– A need for realism
“If we do not succeed in making a success of this, we will never have this opportunity again,” Lord Thomas concluded. “It would be a disaster for the administration of justice in this country and our ability to compete internationally.”