In a recent speech the President of The Queen’s Bench Division, Sir Brian Leveson, articulated a vision of the criminal justice system that embraces the use of modern technology. Sir Brian highlights in his speech the need for the justice system to approach the benefits new technology can bring, not simply to build greater use of IT into current systems but, significantly, to develop a new system which uses what technology can offer as the starting point for a new approach.
The call for a new approach finds a resonance in other recent contributions from senior judges and politicians alike: the Lord Chief in his June lecture on Judicial leadership reminds us that some recent changes to our justice system, in this case changes to the role of the Lord Chancellor and the increasing separation of judicial and political roles, have been steps that require adaptation on the part of those involved and engaged, just as previous reforms had done. Effective change, therefore, cannot be borne out of passivity; it requires engagement and a readiness to shift.
Both judges highlight a need for a wide ranging reform rather than a tinkering with the fundamentals of the entire machinery of justice. They remind us that maintaining court files on paper is outmoded and wasteful of precious resource: a paper based approach is one which many of us may find comfortable and to which we are, to a degree, wedded. But time moves on and our justice system must move on too if it is to be fit to serve both us and future generations. As Sir Brian notes in relation to the mounds of paperwork still to be found in our courts, “we simply cannot go on with this utterly outmoded way of working”. Instead of technology being used to make traditional ways of delivering more efficient the technology needs, as the Lord Chief highlights, to be used to devise new ways of delivering justice.
A key aim of this transformation in our justice system is to have cases dealt with efficiently, speedily and above all justly. Cases that in the past have been reliant on the exchange of paper based documents will now be served electronically: the police will send statements and exhibits to the CPS; the papers will, in turn, be sent by the CPS to the defence teams; and documents will be shared with the courts and probation services. All this sounds not only sensible but has the potential to deliver a more streamlined and efficient service.
And in all of this it is crucial that we don’t lose sight of who are the most important potential recipients of all these changes and how any success must be measured against the delivery of their needs and expectations. Victims and witnesses have been told for years now that they are at “the heart of the criminal justice system”. They have been told by government and politicians and by criminal justice professionals that they are the most important people in the system and the most important recipients of services. So any changes need to reflect this rhetoric.
There is, therefore, a real need to look not just at improvements in technology per se but about how these impact upon and improve the lot of victims and witnesses in the system. Yes, by improving the ways in which the system deals with documents, by facilitating easier and speedier decision making, court listing, the sorting out of legal arguments (that still take place, all too frequently on the first day of a trial when witnesses are left waiting and they could have been addressed sooner) are all positive developments. But there is a need also to look beyond these and to invest in a new approach to how and where witnesses can give their best evidence; the court environment is not, perhaps, the best place to get the best evidence from a witness. So there needs to be an investment in alternative, off court site facilities and the equipment to allow witnesses to give remote evidence (as prisoners often do nowadays) to prevent them having to physically attend court. That’s in the best interests of justice and will also help reduce costs over time. The Lord Chancellor, in his first key speech in role, recognises that “online solutions and telephone and video hearings can make justice easier to access and reduce the need for long – and often multiple – journeys to court.
In short, the advancement in the use of technology needs to be matched by a look again at the culture of our criminal justice service and a re-commitment to seeing that those who provide much of the input, victims and witnesses, are also recognised as those on whom the outcomes often depend. And that will necessitate the service looking beyond its own confines and engaging with a range of organisations who can help shape the service of the future. As Sir Brian said in his speech, this isn’t about tinkering. Rather, it affords an opportunity, a once in a generation opportunity, to break down some long established barriers and shake some old shibboleths. There are creative solutions available to many of the problems the system often throws up; it is sometimes for the want of looking and asking the right questions that these have not been delivered sooner. Many stand willing to help.
If we all contribute to getting this right we will have helped establish what we have all been seeking for as long as most of us can remember: a criminal justice service that is responsive, flexible, transparent and just and puts those whom it serves at the heart of all it does. If we don’t take this opportunity we will, once again, have let down most those whom we profess to serve.