Friday 13 April 2012 by Peter Lewis
The government has committed to providing a simpler, swifter and more transparent criminal justice service and, as part of this, the core agencies of the criminal justice system (CJS) have committed to ?going digital?.
Talk about moving to a digital system has been around for a long time. The difference now is that, since last autumn, this is part of a wider efficiency programme across the CJS. And real progress has been made.
So, how digital is the CJS so far and what does it mean to defence firms? The vast majority of police forces - 38 out of 43 - are now transferring a substantial amount of their case information electronically and the remaining forces will join them within six months. Magistrates? courts are ready to receive digital case files from the CPS and most first hearing cases are currently being served electronically to ?the door of the court?. During the next year, other magistrates? courts case files will increasingly be served electronically and we anticipate starting electronic service of Crown court cases. While digital working is already taking place behind the scenes, signs of this digital transformation will soon be more visible in court.
Around 2,000 CPS prosecutors are already presenting in court using tablet devices and by May that will be extended to all our prosecutors. More evidence will be given remotely using video technology. And in major litigation, the use of electronic presentation of evidence is on the increase. The most significant change for the defence community is that they will be able to correspond with the CPS by Secure eMail and a digital case file will be made available rather than a paper one. The digital file has all the features of a paper bundle and many additional benefits.
The case files are searchable, communication can be instantaneous, and the defence can be provided with files at the earliest opportunity. The time, space and money spent storing, sorting and moving paper can be saved. The first step towards working digitally is simple - a defence firm signs up for a Secure eMail account. This will enable defence firms to correspond with the CPS and other agencies instantaneously by email and once a defence firm has provided their written consent the CPS can serve files electronically. Around 40% of Legal Services Commission contract holders have an account. Of course, Secure eMail is not the only way to serve case files in a digital format. The CPS has served digital information on discs in complex cases for many years and this will continue.
But we recognise that greater use of digital working can have wider implications, which is why we are working closely with the defence community. I chair the National Defence Steering Group that includes representatives of the Law Society, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and London Criminal Law Solicitors Association, and meets fortnightly to address concerns. There has already been progress, with the National Offender Management Service issuing a revised policy allowing defence practitioners to take laptops into prisons and success in ensuring that legal aid fees are the same irrespective of whether a digital or paper file is served.
But it does not stop there. We are determined that we will find solutions to issues raised by defence representatives so we can all benefit from digital working. Until those issues are resolved - and they will be - we will continue to serve paper files to unrepresented defendants, defendants in custody or those granted representation on the morning of a first hearing, if we have not heard from the defence. We have also confirmed that we will only serve files via Secure eMail to those who have given their consent to receive material via Secure eMail.
There is now no reason why defence firms should not sign up for Secure eMail and I would urge all defence firms to make the logical move to digital working sooner rather than later.
The move to digital working is inevitable. All the agencies will now be working to exploit the advantages of working digitally - less paper, less movement, speedier flow of information - and deliver a simpler, swifter and more transparent criminal justice service.
Peter Lewis is head of the CJS Efficiency Programme