First, a few milestones from the past:
- In 1991 Sir Brian Neill, who had been the chairman of the Information Technology and the Courts Committee (ITAC) since 1986, told a large multi-disciplinary audience very bluntly that from a judge’s perspective the provision of applied technology to the courts by the Court Service resembled a scenario in which the front-line troops in the Gulf War were being equipped with bows and arrows while the most up to date state of the art technology was being commissioned by headquarters staff for their own use at a 300-mile safe distance from the front line. [Incidentally, Sir Brian is still going strong at 93: I saw him at a Society for Computers & Law event two nights ago]
- In 1997 I reported to the Government what was then being done in Singapore to set up electronic case filing arrangements which would in the foreseeable future remove the mountain of paper that would clog up our civil courts as soon as Lord Woolf’s procedural reforms were implemented. [I witnessed them in action when I visited a court in Singapore six years later]
- In 2001 a group of judges, led by Sir Peter Cresswell, prepared and published an excellent report for the Court Service’s Modernisation Programme Board, identifying with meticulous precision the judges’ needs in all the jurisdictions of the courts in England and Wales.
- In October 2003 (following the Treasury’s 2002 spending freeze) I wrote that we were doing our best in our civil and family courts with a peculiar combination of obsolete databases and modern office software to provide useful aids to judges and court staff during what might be a very long transitional period until we were provided with modern court software that was fit for its purpose. [The transitional period seems to have lasted nearly 15 years]
- This week I saw evidence that the future had at last, at very long last, arrived.
I attended a demonstration by a small English company called Caselines of the software they have now designed and installed in every Crown Court in England and Wales. It is software designed by English programmers to meet English (and Welsh) needs. I mentioned this development in the tribute I paid to John Tanzer on this site three months ago when I wrote:
eBundles and the Digital Court System (DCS).
The driver for this initiative came from the Crown Prosecution Service which recognised that if they were to meet their budgetary targets they would have to do something about the cost of distributing paper. The cost of printing is relatively inconsequential. It is movement, filing and destruction that are expensive.
Without taking part in any procurement role, John was personally involved in the search for, and the selection of, a supplier, from which exercise Caselines (now known as DCS) emerged as the eventual front-runner.
The new system incorporates:
- A bundling side where all case papers can be aggregated;
- Papers given Information Rights (IRM);
- A User Interface so that the data can be deployed in the court room.
John’s main interest was in the third of these features. He had already visited The Hague to look at the systems they had put in place for the International Criminal Court and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. From this experience he learned what should be avoided if the new system was to be popular with advocates and judges in this country.
He had many meetings with the developer of CaseLines in order to refine the interface so that it could be used with the relative familiarity of a set of lever-arch files but retain the power of electronic data with its search ability and speed of movement. [I have shown a sample case at the top of this blog].
To give an example of its functionality, one can take the judge or anyone else to any page without their having to turn to it. Interleaved pages keep their pagination without upsetting the pagination of others. Material does not only include text. Notes can be private or shared. The whole can be searched. And above all, it works.
Although the driver for this initiative came from the field of criminal justice John Tanzer always took the view that with judges sitting across jurisdictions it made no sense not to use the same system (provided it was suitable) across the piste.
This, surely, should be the current aim. Far too often politicians and senior civil servants whose offices are far removed from the courts’ frontline think of the criminal courts’ jurisdiction as something different from the jurisdictions of the civil courts and the family courts, let alone the jurisdiction of tribunals. These may provide convenient pigeonholes for bureaucrats, but they mask a reality in which many judges move from one jurisdiction to another – a process that will be accelerated as the tribunal judiciary become increasingly assimilated with the courts judiciary. It would be little short of ludicrous if they had to contend with different types of software as they move between one jurisdiction and another in the course of a working year.
The huge merit of the Caselines solution (which is not yet suitable for the very heavy trials that provide a tiny fraction of the total caseload of the criminal courts) is, as I have said, that it has been designed by highly skilled English programmers for English needs: indeed, the first main stage of a very long journey, we heard last week, was to go and ask English court users what they needed. [The journey started, slightly surprisingly, in the course of a train journey to Croydon, but that is another story]
I always had reservations when it was suggested that we should adapt software designed for other jurisdictions (particularly in the US) because our procedures are different and software design has to take this into account.
At this week’s event I spoke to Judge Alistair McCreath, who is about to stand down as the senior judge at the Southwark Crown Court (at which I used to sit occasionally as a Crown Court recorder 30 years ago). His court centre had been one of the two major Crown Court centres which had piloted the software (now in universal use), and he spoke in glowing terms of the way its arrival had revolutionised the way in which judges are able to manage and try cases, from their court, from their home, or from anywhere in the world with internet access to which they may carry their laptop. I was not surprised.
Of course, digitisation will bring its own problems in its wake, but what I saw last week was a real English success story, and we should be very proud of it.
P.S. On one of my visits to Southwark Crown Court in the 1980s the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, came to lunch with us. To fill up his morning, he had been assigned a very simple criminal trial, and the jury had already acquitted by lunchtime. He said he imagined the relieved defendant telling his mates:
My case was so important they sent the Lord Chief Justice himself down to try me, and even he could not get me convicted.