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

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