The history of Government-led IT projects is hardly sparkling. Today’s report from the National Audit Office provides another example to add to the long ‘room for improvement’ column. The NAO examined the history and delivery of an offender tagging project and reached the conclusion that forms the title above. It also added that the Ministry’s approach was “not grounded in evidence, and failed to deliver against its vision.”

The purpose of this post is not to take a cheap shot at Government IT projects generally or at MoJ tech procurement specifically. Rather it is to sound a note of caution and realism about what needs to be achieved in the current development phase of the proposed online court for civil claims.

At the beginning of this month, legal technology pioneer Professor Richard Susskind OBE repeated that “Online courts are likely to be the most significant development in our court system since the nineteenth century, enabling far greater and affordable access to justice.” He was speaking at the launch of the competitive hackathon for the online court, held on 1 & 2 July.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, also attended the event and wore his hackathon T shirt (see bottom right thumbnail here). A few days later, and probably more traditionally dressed, he delivered a speech to Her Majesty’s Judges at the Mansion House in which he reflected on the hackathon and the need for quick and meaningful delivery of online dispute resolution services:

The 210 participants, lawyers and techies, brought their skills, their enthusiasm, their altruism and their global outlook to spend 24 hours competing and cooperating to write software that demonstrated what can, and must, be achieved in an on-line court. Their elation at their achievements after 24 hours without sleep demonstrated the commitment of our younger generation. Our generation cannot, and must, not let them down. We will, however, let them down if the speedy passage of the Courts Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech is not achieved, as it is needed to provide the necessary legal framework for reform.

A great deal of goodwill, hard work and hope is already associated with the delivery of on ine court services in England and Wales. Lord Justice Briggs’s report in 2016 outlined the key issues and narrowed down the preferred early adoption choice to civil claims under £25,000. There is also the important amount of around £700m allocated to court reform (in both civil and criminal areas) in the 2010 Autumn Statement. The senior judiciary and the Government (in its pre-2017 election guise) have already bought into a shared vision of technology-enabled court services entitled “Transforming Our Justice System” which features the following passage among its conclusions:

Our times – with the advent of the internet and an explosion in new technology – provide the opportunity for radical change. Traditional ways of working are being upended, not just in justice but across the board. To secure and enhance the global reputation of our justice system, therefore, we must respond to those changes radically and quickly – and the rapidly evolving needs and expectations of everyone who uses our courts and tribunals.

So there is a very clear need to transform these services and strong support for doing so. As has been seen, significant taxpayer funds have been allocated to make that happen and some initial steps have been taken, such as via the hackathon. It is also understood that specific rules for online resolution are being developed.

The NAO said today, regarding the offender tagging project, that “The Ministry was unprepared for what emerged to be a transformation programme.”

With regard to the online court, the level of activity being undertaken would appear to suggest that the MoJ is not “unprepared” for the radical changes needed to deliver an effective and efficient online court. Based on that, the hope – and it is only that at the moment – has to be that any future NAO investigation into the setting up of the online court, perhaps in five years or so, will be able to deliver a much more positive report on its development and initial operating phase.