Delivering justice for the digital age 

Driving efficiency in the criminal justice system through greater digitisation remains a key government objective.The 2015 Spending Review saw just over £700 million of capital investment committed to the increased use of technology in our courts and by 2020 this investment is hoped to produce savings of an estimated £200 million per year. This will be achieved through a combination of streamlining processes, rationalising the court estate (through greater use of remote trials) and encouraging citizens to 'self-serve' via online portals. 'Reforming justice for the digital age' a new report from the Police Foundation sets out some of the challenges that stand in the way of the government realising this vision and also considers new areas for reform. Done right, it argues that digitisation will not only help drive efficiency gains, but can also boost the effectiveness of justice processes - and most importantly to the benefit of the public it serves.

Digital justice: the case for change 

Our criminal justice system is beset by inefficiency. While technology has revolutionised service delivery in the private sector, and even other parts of government, our justice system often remains wedded to archaic paper-based practices and out-dated legacy IT systems. This increasingly results in both inefficient and inadequate services.

A clear illustration of these failings is the stark fact that only half of trials take place on the day they were scheduled to do so – falling to just a third in the Crown Court.

This results in significant, and already limited, resources being squandered. In 2014/15, for example, £93 million was spent on defence counsels for cases that never made it to trial. Across this same period, a further £22 million was spent by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – again, preparing files that would never see a courtroom.

Putting users back at the heart of the criminal justice system

Maintaining current ways of working would also be to the detriment of citizens. According to work by the National Audit Office, just 55 per cent of individuals who had been either victims or witnesses in court would do so again. This has significant implications for the future effectiveness of our justice system.

In particular, despite new forms of automated communication like SMS messaging becoming commonplace within consumer transactions, agencies continue to fail to keep victims, witnesses and defendants up to date about how their case is progressing.

In some instances this even extends to the actual case outcome. During interviews carried out as part of this project, the Foundation heard that it is not uncommon for citizens to hear the outcome of their case via social media or word of mouth, long before the official court judgement is posted to them. A third of victims will simply hear nothing more from the police after the act of reporting the crime.

Harnessing the power of new technologies to address these issues should be a priority for those individuals charged with designing digital solutions.

Progress to date: what has digitisation achieved? 

In part as a response to the challenge of austerity, it is important to acknowledge the Ministry of Justice and Home Office have embarked on a number of national programmes which have aimed to support digital working. These have included:

- Wi-fi has been rolled out in courts. This has enabled legal professionals to perform administrative tasks 'on site' and evidence to be presented digitally from tablets. In 2014, 100 per cent of hearings in magistrates courts were presented this way.

- A digital case file has been introduced into the magistrates courts which has reduced duplication and error and aimed to speed up case times. This is now being rolled out across crown courts with plans in place for the digital case file to also be transferable between agencies.

- Platforms which support online plea submission for minor offences have been piloted for some traffic offences and are now due to be rolled out for a number of additional crime types. This will streamline processes for more straightforward cases and aims to free up resources for more complex offences which will continue to require more formal legal proceedings.

Digital justice: barriers to reform 

But despite progress in these areas, the overall shift towards digitising services has been inadequate. Hampered by the differing pace of reform across the numerous and disparate agencies that make up our criminal justice system, efficiency gains are often squandered. Decisions to simply translate manual processes onto digital platforms, rather than overhauling them entirely, have also led to missed opportunities to realise the greatest levels of efficiency. Key issues include:

Digitisation across rather than within justice agencies 

Currently, much greater progress has been made by more centralised agencies (such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)) than within police forces and among the independent advocates in our courts. Where these bodies remain hampered by archaic systems, it can result in digital documents needing to be transformed back into hard-copy. This undermines any efficiency that has been gained through digitisation.

Shared aims means shared responsibilities 

Some of the incentives built into the current system appear to encourage individual agencies to prioritise their own interests, pushing demand and costs further down the criminal justice chain. Without a shared vision of integrated working, and most importantly pooled budgets, it will remain impossible to remove large areas of inefficiency.

Improving the interoperability of justice systems 

A lack of standardisation across agencies often prevents interoperability. This is particularly problematic within the police service where decentralised procurement processes have led to multiple systems being in operation. To prevent this problem persisting, there is a need for mechanisms which support the police to make collective decisions about IT which are binding on all 43 forces. This should include a commitment to ensuring systems are able to talk to CPS and HMCTS technology.

Ensuring staff buy-in and changing entrenched cultures 

Without adequate staff consultation and the introduction of internal digital 'champions' the implementation of technology can fail to have a significant effect on day to day working. User-consultation is also important - particularly at the design or procurement phase. A failure to capture the needs of practitioners may lead to the implementation of technology which is not fit for purpose.

Digital Skills

The gap between the digital skills required to overhaul archaic systems and those present within the current criminal justice workforce continues to be problematic. On the ground, while some practitioners have adapted quickly to new working practices, others have struggled to master even the basics. More worryingly, there is a growing issue with attracting and retaining the right talent who have the skills to design and build new systems. Coding, for example, is a sought-after commodity in the open market. Portraying the civil service or policing as attractive to these kinds of specialists will be essential for ensuring the success of complex digital initiatives.

 Justice and the rise of the robots 

Current reforms will no doubt reduce public spending in the longer term, however more radical service redesign offers the opportunity to realise both greater savings and much better outcomes for users.

For example, while once seen as only possible in the realms of sci-fi movies, robots are already increasingly being employed in the private sector, and not just for the completion of simplistic or repetitive tasks. IBM's Watson technology, for example, has been used by large international law firms to conduct legal research for a wide range of complicated cases. This goes beyond simply summarising key documentation and in places has now seen robots learning from human feedback and getting smarter over time.

Applied to the public sector, there clearly may be significant savings to be made. CPS prosecutors and legal-aid funded defence lawyers, for example, could be aided to complete case preparation much faster, and without a reliance on research support staff, freeing up additional funding for more complex tasks.

Blockchain: the answer to everything? 

Finally, while currently, there is often a reliance on centralised and decentralised databases which require both a large central administrator and are expensive to run, a relatively new innovation, in the form of Blockchain technologies may have the potential to overhaul the way justice agencies store and share information. Blockchains are a form of distributed ledger technology (which is an innovative type of secure database) that can be replicated, shared and synchronised across multiple locations.

Not only are Blockchains more secure than other ways of storing and sharing information, but the fact that they can automatically reconcile updates means the reliance on lower-skilled administrative workers is reduced. These benefits have seen the technology increasingly adopted within not only financial services - where its application may be most obvious - but also a number of other industries including international government departments.

Importantly, despite lower costs, Blockchain solutions also offer much greater opportunity for personalisation of services. Blockchain databases can facilitate additional data being placed into the public realm, enhancing transparency. Citizens would not only be able to see more easily how cases are progressing, but could also view how their personal data was being used by justice agencies. This has the potential to boost public confidence in the CJS.

Digital justice: protecting the digitally excluded

A key and consistent theme from our discussions with criminal justice experts is that within this new digital justice system, the potential for individuals to be digitally excluded cannot be ignored. It is estimated, for example, that there are still over 12 million people living in the UK who lack basic digital skills. Additional technical support and training must therefore be put in place in order to ensure equality of access to new forms of services.

In addition, cultural barriers to digital justice must be addressed. While four out of five adults in Great Britain use the internet every day, only two-thirds have ever transacted online with government - and much of this will be in the context of online driver licence renewal etc rather than 'core' public services.

Given this resistance to digital public services, it is vital therefore that government platforms offer the same, if not better, functionality than private sector comparators. If new portals are cumbersome or complex they will simply not be adopted by citizens. This has the potential to undermine the gains sought through investment into digital justice - both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

Where next for digital justice? 

'Reforming justice for the digital age' presents a mixed picture of digital justice in England and Wales. While, in some areas digital working is fully embedded within day-to-day working, in others a reliance on manual processes remains.

Understanding how to ensure that pockets of innovation are spread more widely is a key challenge for policymakers - and one that must be confronted as soon as possible to ensure that significant financial resources are not squandered.

Looking ahead, it is also clear that there is a need for digitisation to go much further. To date, initiatives have tended to focus on 'doing what we have always done' but in a digital way. This has led to some efficiency gains but fails to question the effectiveness of historical ways of working. It also misses an important opportunity to redesign services around the needs of users - whose dissatisfaction with the CJS must be addressed.

Download the full report 'Reforming justice for the digital age'.

Liz Crowhurst, Policy Officer, The Police Foundation