Law: Courting computers

The jury is still out on the growing role of information technology in the legal world. Giving private firms access to protected data is one of the more sensitive issues in the dock. By Robert Verkaik

The pounds 25 million contract awarded to Electronic Data Systems, the American IT giant, for the computerisation of county and crown courts, is back on course after a faltering start.

Senior EDS executives and court services staff are confident they have overcome a printing problem which cast a shadow over the project; they predict that all 240 county courts will be linked by the end of the year. Already, 2,000 out of the target group of 4,000 court users have joined the system.

Peter Risk is courts circuit administrator for Wales and Cheshire and designer of Caseman, the county court system which EDS is using to computerise all manual record-keeping. "Now we have the partnership and the system which opens up opportunities for us," he says. "If Woolf had written his report three years ago talking about (litigation commencement) kiosks, on-line access and e-mail between judges and solicitors, we would have sat in horror - we couldn't even get a computer system into the court."

But Lord Woolf and others have also expressed disquiet about the role of the Private Finance Initiative in allowing private companies such as EDS to develop the new systems. The fear is that IT strategy in the courts will be lost to private companies. Woolf calls for an independent strategy group to overcome such concern. EDS has already attracted critical attention for its success in winning a wide range of government IT contracts. EDS designs or operates IT programmes for the Ministry of Defence, Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security, the DVLA, the Child Support Agency and the BBC. In the private sector, it works with a number of leading companies including Rolls Royce and Rank Xerox. Part of the current PFI court contract is the development of Crest, the crown court computer system, and the company is also bidding for another court services contract - Mass (Magistrates Standards Court Specification) which is aimed at helping the Lord Chancellor's Department assess performance and develop strategy.

Laurence Plater, justice systems account director for EDS, says: "We are very interested in bidding for Mass, and we are putting every effort in to try to win that contract," he says. "Mass has a lot of synergy with what we are doing at the moment."

But the suggestion that EDS could influence the overall IT strategy in the courts is one that the company is keen to play down. Mr Plater says that an EDS bid for another LCD contract, Aramis, a project to computerise courts' accounts and management information, has been rejected. A spokesman for EDS added: "We process information; we don't own it or direct it. We are very much a servant of our customers. Aramis is a very important contract and the point that we could dominate court strategy might have held if we had won that."

The fact that EDS failed to win the contract, EDS suggests, instead demonstrates the Lord Chancellor's Department doesn't want the company to run all the LCD systems.

Other concerns over the use of outside contractors centre on the company's access to a vast range of protected information. Peter Risk says: "I know people have sensitivities about EDS, but they had to comply with approved government security levels before the contract could be awarded."

The sort of computer malfunction resulting in an individual being sentenced for a crime with which they have not been charged or incorrectly fined has not happened. Mr Risk stresses that there has not been a serious problem with the new systems and the court is obliged to keep manual records of computer information as back-up.

Nevertheless, the blip in printing documents during the pilot stage in February set training back. While the court services staff are "generally content" with EDS, Mr Risk says there was a delay in kicking off roll- out, as well as other "teething problems".

For the moment, the partnership seems to be holding. "We like to think," says Mr Risk, "that we are good at running courts; EDS think they're good at developing and supporting computers. The partnership will allow us to consider things we previously hadn't been able to consider."

Once full roll-out is completed, court services experts predict rapid advances in court-room computer technology leading to a time when lawyers will be able to access the courts from their offices. Proceedings will be instigated by simply logging on to the local court's IT system and then complying with basic procedural instructions. Evidence will be submitted online and assessed in the court room on screen, ending th e toing and froing of solicitors' clerks with trolley loads of evidence. Best of all, everyone will be able to read the judgements at the same time wherever they are.

For those lawyers who still believe this scenario is a long way off, there are plenty of shocks in stock. Peter Risk wants lawyers to know that IT will very shortly change the way they interact with the courts.

He says: "We are convinced that this is the future; we've just been denied the opportunity to consider it for the court services because we have not had the foundation we have now. If I was playing it really safe, I'd say it would be in place by the turn of the century, and I actually think we will do better than that."

Mr Risk is aware that Americans are already showing the way, with street- corner kiosks where members of the public can use computers to issue proceedings. A team of representatives from EDS and the court services has already been to America to look at ideas for IT court technology.

There is, of course, a worrying aspect to all this. A significant part of the high-street solicitor's fee comes from filling in forms. Will the new age of computer courts mark the demise of the high-street practitioner?

No, says Mr Risk: "It makes a lot of solicitors question how much they are prepared to invest in IT to be able to communicate with the court and others involved." Mr Risk says there a desire to press ahead with new IT among young solicitors is being stifled by intransigent, older members of their firms who are less able to appreciate IT.

While it is certain that computer courts are here to stay, Mr Risk doubts whether court rooms will ever become lawyer-free zones. The idea that hearings will take place in conference-style computerised chambers with witnesses being called as projected images, is not, says Mr Risk, something we should expect. "We have found that people still want their day in court." n

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Voices
The number of children in relative income poverty is currently 2.3 million in the UK
voices

Environment
A Brazilian wandering spider
natureIt's worth knowing for next time one appears in your bananas
Life and Style
Time and Oak have developed a product that allows drinkers to customise the flavour and improve the quality of cheaper whiskey
food + drink

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past