The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement yesterday that there was at last to be real progress in meeting the challenges involved in modernising the courts attracted these two immediate comments in the Twittersphere:
Professor Richard Susskind:
“I have waited for this day for 34 years – UK government is to invest ‘more than £700 million to modernise and fully digitise the courts’.”
David Allen Green:
“Mention of proposal to ‘fully digitise the courts, moving from paper-based to online system’. Prediction: expensive IT fiasco in making.”
Readers of my blogs will not be surprised to learn that my reaction is closer to Richard’s, although I would only lay serious claim to 30 years of waiting. Richard was at Balliol College Oxford between 1983 and 1986 when he was writing a DPhil thesis on “Expert systems: a jurisprudential inquiry”, so that his period of waiting seems to have begun when he was still an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow. More modestly, I would start my waiting time in June 1985, when I was asked to join the Bar’s first ever Computer Committee.
The following year I helped to found the Information Technology and the Courts Committee whose forward thinking was light years ahead of its time. I remember drawing the attention of the Home Office then to the value of the video technology that was already being used for communications between prisoners and a courthouse in San Diego, many, many years before the Government was willing to sanction serious investment in this very obvious “must-use” in the field of applied technology.
This second tranche of serious investment is the long-delayed sequel to the £260 million investment programme which I helped to steer while judge in charge of modernisation between 2000 and 2004. Disastrously, the Treasury refused to complete the job then.
Many of today’s ideas are strongly reminiscent of the ideas we canvassed in the excellent Modernisation of the Civil Courts consultation paper published in 2001, and it is such a shame that Treasury stopped us from finishing the job (which also included the closure of a lot of under-used courts) at that time. I have now added to this site some more papers which date back to those days. They show how much had been achieved in a comparatively short time, and more importantly just how much more needed to be done. It is good to think that a start is now soon to be made. Much better late than never.
What will be very important is that those who will be in charge of implementing the new programme read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the lessons we learned when court modernisation was last a serious item on the courts’ agenda. We are not concerned with brand new ventures in the use of applied technology. My papers show that what we will be undertaking here will simply enable us to catch up with other jurisdictions whose political and financial governance was wiser than ours. I hope we may also be able to learn from the mistakes made by others.