16 Nov 2022
by Kate Fairhurst

Meeting the Needs of the User

A guest blog submitted by Kate Fairhurst, Director at Henham Strategy for #DigitalJusticeWeek2022

The rule of law is the fundamental hallmark of British democracy, and our justice system is revered worldwide as one of the best and fairest. If someone was asked to say the words that first spring to mind when they think of the court services, it is doubtful that “technology”, “innovation” and “digital” would be amongst them, many likely steering towards more antiquated terms.

Having said that, the past few years has seen a real drive by the MoJ and HMCTS to get to grips with a system that has arguably long been in the dark ages when it comes to digitisation. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a fast and widespread transition to remote hearings when physical attendance was not possible, and in recent months, we have seen several digital ‘firsts’, such as the Crown Court opening its doors to video cameras for the first time to show sentencing, and the introduction of new technology to allow rape victims the option of giving pre-recorded evidence. There are pockets of real progress, but there are also many pockets awaiting improvement.

Why is this important?

It is crucial that the justice system is an environment where digital and technological progress is embraced. This would mean that everyone who comes into contact with the system would tangibly feel the benefits, whether that is the victims of crime, defendants and prisoners, legal practitioners, or court staff.

A well-functioning system, supported by innovative technology, could not only mean greater potential efficiencies in terms of value for money, but also in terms of meeting the needs of those who are going through the system, and ultimately getting justice for victims of crime.

But, it’s also important for prisoners and their lives upon release. It has been shown that a digitally skilled and literate individual is less likely to reoffend, and there is work going on at the moment on the digitisation of resources within the prison system.

In terms of the courts themselves, a recent House of Commons Justice Committee report shone a light on gaps in reporting, and how the court system should adapt to the new digital age to open up greater access for the public. A large reason behind anxiety about the justice system is a lack of understanding and engagement; harnessing the potential of technology could help to tackle this, and transform people’s interaction with the justice system completely.

What are the challenges?

As it stands, users of the courts system seem to have a patchy experience across the board. I am a sitting magistrate for the adult criminal bench and see this myself. Problems with the roll-out of the new digital system, Common Platform, has even led to strike action by some magistrate court staff, and the practical use of technological systems in court can be a frustrating and disjointed undertaking. Multiple different IT systems to access a single case, the continued necessity for paper lists (as the online systems often don’t contain all the essential data), and regular system ‘crashes’ - I’m sure all court users could go on.

In prisons, some prisoners are given access to individual laptops allowing them to access educational resources, communicate with in-prison services, and coordinate day-to-day organisation, but owing to security concerns, poor resourcing and understaffing, there is some way to go for the system to fully transition to the digital world.

Whilst there is willingness and motivation by Government to tackle these problems, the issues themselves mean that staff and users alike are less empowered and able to deliver a best-in-class service. This only serves to limit justice for all those involved.

What next?

There is a real opportunity for the Government to be bold on this, pursuing a long-term vision based on how technology can help to change and improve existing processes for the better, rather than shorter-term, more ‘sticking plaster’ initiatives.

At Henham Strategy, we know from our work with our clients that data has enormous potential to be transformative if pulled together and applied effectively to create solutions, and there is no reason why this can’t be the case for the justice system. We have been proud partners of techUK for two years now in producing the Local Digital Capital Index, which demonstrates how instrumental digital skills are in driving productivity in local areas. There is no reason why the same logic can’t be applied here.

We have the technological capabilities in the UK to grasp this nettle. In doing so, we could create a consistently strong, resilient and user-friendly digital environment for all those engaging in the justice system. The bedrock of our democracy would then have the tools it needs to really flourish.


Kate Fairhurst

Kate Fairhurst

Director, Henham Strategy