“We are aware that some CCMS users are experiencing difficulties using the system. Our technical teams are investigating this as a priority and we will let you know when the issue is resolved.”
So says the Legal aid Agency with regular monotony. I don’t blame them, but for anyone working with them the weekly problems must be very irritating. It isn’t exactly efficient access to justice.
The Legal Aid Agency isn’t alone. Try getting medical records from some of our more well-known hospitals. They arrive in sections. The handwritten traditional records followed (or not) by the electronic patient record (EPR) . This may not be available. It may not be complete. It may not come at all without chasing.
Or try the High Court, divided as it is into various parts .Some of it has an updated computer system, but the judges at the Queen’s Bench Division dealing with civil claims routinely complain about how poor their bit of the system is. Email a PDF document and the system cannot cope. What should be easy to do becomes a problem as the system grinds to a halt.
Technology, when it works, is fabulous. When it doesn’t, it becomes a nightmare. The Ministry of Justice hasn’t gone overboard on investment and it shows.
However we now hear about the online court. A concept which allows cases to be dealt with speedily and quite possibly without access to lawyers. Leaving aside that part, the idea is to have a system whereby claims can be dealt with by form and email. The parties don’t have to attend. The judge (or someone from the civil service) can make a decision on the evidence received via the internet. It can deal with claims perhaps up to £100,000 or more. That is a substantial case and not an amount mostly that people can afford to lose.
I don’t actually dislike technology, quite the opposite. It is vital for the work I do and it makes my life much easier, but I have two main concerns.
The first is that I am not sure whether most people will find it so easy to access such a court system. The people who may need the help are the people least likely to have access to online services, who might need someone to put their arguments for them. They may miss relevant information or documents which could impact on their case. This is simply about allowing people representation which helps them for some or all of the process.
My second concern is based on historical problems with IT in government agencies. The Legal Aid Agency is just one of many organisations in which the technological requirements aren’t being met. Sadly it impacts on the poorest in society.
If technology is to work it has to have significant and proper investment. People have to be properly trained and someone, somewhere, has to provide help for those who find online forms and applications difficult.
Years after email correspondence with some of the High Court judges became the normal approach we still have the nonsense that they cannot access certain types of documents. The investment in IT for High Court claims worth significantly more than £100,000 is not there, whilst most lawyers deal electronically with cases all the time. How has it come to pass that the Judge who determines a case and how it is run has less access to technology than the solicitors?
If any online plan for justice is to succeed, it needs a considerable and ongoing commitment to funding, training and innovation. Experience doesn’t support that happening and if it doesn’t then the people who will suffer are not the judiciary but those who have no other access to justice.