Between 2010 and 2015 the Ministry of Justice endured amongst the deepest cuts of any government department. Yet even as over £2 billion was saved by closing courts, cutting legal aid and allowing prisons to become dangerous, rat-infested, spice-ridden hell-holes, the Ministry of Justice was powering ahead with a £1 billion plan to 'digitise' the court system.
Unlike the cockroaches crawling along the prison landings it sounded slick and modern, and to some extent it was successful. Most criminal case 'papers' are now accessible electronically, a considerable convenience to all concerned, though advocates usually prefer – at their own expense - to print out hard copies for use in court. Defendants in custody routinely appear by video-link (similar to a Skype call), at least at pre-trial hearings, and often for sentence too. Communications between the CPS, defence lawyers and the courts and police are sent by what is optimistically described as 'secure' email.
Even when all this digitisation works it is still questionable as to whether, overall, it actually enhances the quality of justice. Many prisoners, it is true, prefer to avoid an uncomfortable journey to court in a prison sweat-box designed for 4' tall dwarves, but the limited research so far suggests that defendants who appear by video-link are likely to receive longer sentences than those who are physically present. It is also undeniable that both giving and receiving legal advice – especially the unwelcome advice of the type that criminal clients often prefer not to hear – is much more easily undertaken face-to-face than over a prison video-link.
So there are real questions about the over-digitisation of the courts, even when the systems work. When they do not work, as with the recent IT failures over the past few days, we have seen the court system teetering dangerously on the edge of complete disintegration.
Nobody seems to know exactly what has gone wrong or, if they do, they do not like to say. The most irritating fault has been for a few days the near total seizure (or 'major service degradation' to use the official non-explanation) of the secure email system ('CJSM') which for several years now has been the only authorised means of written communication between the Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers, probation, prisons, police and others. It has always been an unpopular, clunky and inconvenient system but at the end of last week it simply stopped working. Emails remained unsent, and inboxes were remotely wiped and then just as mysteriously restored. It would take a fortnight to restore the system to full working order, we were told, although it seems to be working again now, for the time being at least.
Then other computer related problems started to develop. Advocates could no longer log-in to court computers. Worse still, the digital case system itself failed in hundreds of courts, leading to the adjournment, according to the Criminal Bar Association, of about thirty trials. Similar problems were reported in the family courts.
Rumours abound as to precisely what has gone wrong. Forensic computer expert Mark Morris contacted the operators last week after he was alarmed to receive a seemingly random list of email addresses attached to a supposedly secure email. One theory is that this made Egress, the company which operates CJSM, aware of a security problem within the system. Others speak darkly of worms and trojans, hackers and cyber-attacks. The Ministry of Justice has denied there was a hack and blamed 'an infrastructure failure in our supplier's data centre.' There is a whiff of buck passing, but the fact remains that the system failed.
The greater convenience and (at least theoretical) efficiency of computerisation, comes at the cost of far greater vulnerability. Anyone who remembers the well-publicised computer problems in banks, airlines and other supposedly secure companies in recent years can only shudder at the thought that hackers could penetrate the criminal justice computer systems. Once a hacker or a worm gets loose inside the digital case system, vital evidence could be remotely changed or deleted, or perhaps even worse: placed online. Almost every criminal case in the country could be at risk.
Fortunately, a moment's thought brings the reassuring realisation that the minister in charge of introducing this new digital infrastructure was Chris Grayling. Whilst it is true that his time in office coincided with the near destruction of the court interpreting profession, the ruination of the probation service, the closure or bankruptcy of hundreds of firms of criminal solicitors, the impoverishment of the criminal bar, and a soaring suicide rate in the prisons, the thought that he would have cut corners or authorised the introduction of a third-rate computer system in his department, is surely inconceivable.
Matthew Scott is a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers