The journey to the connected court experience
Looking at the common platform, forensics, future hearings and how the UK Courts system can make better use of digital technologies to support the vulnerable, improve efficiencies and reduce costs. At the height of the pandemic, how did technology help the system to ‘carry on’? How can digital support in the response to the backlogs the courts are facing today? What does the use of online and video technology in criminal courts look like and, what are the flaws or challenges?
When I started working in the magistrates courts over 20 years ago I had no idea that I was going to follow the department on a huge journey of digital transformation over the following two decades. If you’d have described the court of today to me in 1999, it would have been hard to imagine. Back then technology barely factored in the operations of the court. Access to the court computer worked on a rota system, a privileged few had their own dedicated terminal and there was one person with a PC that was responsible for drafting all of the orders that were wet signed and put in envelopes by hand. A paper court diary was bound in folders and treated akin to a sacred text, only accessed by the anointed ones that could interpret its mysterious text. More office space was given for paper files than humans and preparing for court was considered manual labour; if counting steps was thing back then I’d certainly be hitting my targets each day. ‘Leading edge’ was Prison telephone conferences and there was a television on wheels (that we couldn’t get into all of the courtrooms because of its bulk!)
Roll forward to 2021; and the Ministry of Justice is delivering the largest digitally enabled transformation programme in its history. In the magistrates’ courts, paper files are largely a thing of the past, replaced by case management systems that are updated in real time with hearing events, accessible to all court staff and integrated with other CJS organisations. Evidence is presented digitally, courts are wifi enabled, half a million cases are dealt with outside of a physical hearing using the Single Justice Procedure Rules and in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 90% of all case hearings took place using audio and video technology.
It’s amazing how far the courts have come, the technology has modernised but so too has the culture and the willingness to adapt and change. The global pandemic forced the hand of digital adoption in courts as a means to continue operating and it proved that citizens and the Criminal Justice System are capable of embracing technology. So where next? We all know how technology has made our everyday lives more convenient and arguably more economical but how can these everyday conveniences be used in the context of a criminal court experience and for what benefit?
What of today’s technology can be used to optimise and orchestrate the court list, improving the effectiveness of hearings and removing the stressful impact of another unnecessary court visit to a victim, taking away the pain of reliving the experience all over again, the fear of coming face to face with the perpetrator or their family and the further delay in bringing their experience to an end?
What of today’s technology can provide a platform where case participants can engage digitally where appropriate? Where experiences are tailored for each user group and include support pathways, guidance and integrations with other systems like video hearing services; where the case participants are connected and the case journey controlled, to ensure that hearings are scheduled only when appropriate. Could rules engines make non-judicial decisions about case readiness in real-time and feed them back into scheduling decisions? Could AI monitor and moderate court capacity and performance to protect the most important hearings and safeguard the most vulnerable participants?
Human interaction will always be vital and necessary for some cases, but every case could benefit when information and people were readily available when and where needed, courts could operate more efficiently, with reduced delays and fewer postponements. For court users, such as victims and witnesses, participating in trials can be less stressful and traumatic.
Looking to the longer term, this ‘Connected Court Experience’ could be extended to more court user groups, agencies and supporting organisations and bring significant improvements in the user experience and improved efficiency in court operations. Ultimately, this can positively shift public perceptions of, and confidence in, the administration of justice.