In the Media

Whitehall in latest secure e-mail drive

PUBLISHED July 21, 2006

Come September, criminal justice practitioners will again be urged to join a secure e-mail network. But once-bitten lawyers are hesitant to trust the government?s initiative.

The Home Office?s criminal justice IT programme (CJIT) is planning another campaign for the autumn to get legal professionals to join its secure e-mail network. This time, it claims to have ironed out the problems with the system that put so many lawyers off using it before.

This will not be the first time the government has tried to push the criminal law profession to use a secure e-mail system. The CJIT claims more than 246,000 e-mails were sent using the system in June, and that criminal justice secure e-mail (CJSM) had 7,024 ?normal? server-based users and 1,659 ?webmail? users.

But this is a paltry number of users compared to how many it needs to make the service viable, something the CJIT admitted. The Courts Service alone employs thousands on the criminal justice side. The Gazette has heard that only around 70 law firms currently use the system.

This meagre uptake is unsurprising for several reasons, one being that users of CJSM can only e-mail other users of the service. Without corresponding use by the Crown Prosecution Service or the courts, for example, there is no one to e-mail.

A spokesman for the CJIT told the Gazette that the government will spend the summer marketing the service to various parts of the criminal justice system to try to drive up internal usage. There is ?no point asking lawyers if no one else is using it?, he said.

Of course, there are other reasons practitioners have stayed away from the system in their droves: baffling terms and conditions, the need for IT upgrades, mistrust over using a government network, and the old problem of a lack of perceived need.

The CJIT acknowledged that the system had not been adopted by anywhere near enough criminal justice organisations. It has, it seems, streamlined the signing-up process and has gained users for a Web-based version of the system, which may remove some of the IT fears and perceived costs. But webmail account sizes are only 25MB ? Google?s Gmail, for example, offers around 100 times more ? and capability seems limited.

There also seems to be limited optimism as to future take-up. Two years ago, Bruce Houlder QC, vice-chairman of the Bar Council?s IT panel, wrote a paper on how vital it was for the Bar to adopt CJSM. He told the Gazette that he still supports the idea, but that the government has systematically ignored the legal profession?s criticisms.

A key problem is the lack of a requirement to use the system, he said: ?If there is no mandatory requirement, there?s a danger of a lot of public money being wasted trying to reach critical mass.? Mr Houlder said secure e-mail will be important to make electronic filing and electronic case files a reality. But, he said, ?what the profession has been saying about it has really been ignored?.

Steve Wedd, a partner at Brighton-based BWS and treasurer of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, was less complimentary, calling the previous incarnation of CJSM a ?colossal waste of time and money?.

He acknowledged that a form of secured e-mail might need to be part of a future ?joined-up? criminal justice system, but he does not trust the government with e-mails on sensitive subjects. He also derided the government?s stated reason for using the system: ?There is no recorded case where information has leaked out from non-encrypted e-mail to the wrong people,? said Mr Wedd. ?They?re curing a problem that doesn?t exist.?

But others say that just because the worst has not happened does not mean it should be ignored. Stephen Mason, barrister, author and director of the digital evidence programme for the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, gave qualified support to an improved CJSM.

?Personally, I think using a form of secure e-mail must be a good thing when sending sensitive information over the Internet. It is in the interests of the lawyer and the client,? he said. But Mr Mason said that though ?it might be worth considering the government offering? the users must be able to trust the government that communications will be free from interference?.