Digital justice: Crown Prosecution Service's future trials

CPS CIO David Jones discusses Apple iPads in court, the death of paper and a justice cloud...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

CPS CIO David Jones discusses Apple iPads in court, the death of paper and a justice cloud...

Crown Prosecution Service

By April 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service will cut out paper records and become digital by defaultPhoto: Shutterstock

The English and Welsh justice system is built on paper - the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) estimates it produced enough paper to stretch more than twice around the equator in just one year.

But time is running out for paper records in court. By April 2012, the CPS is aiming to make the service, and the one million case files it handles each year, digital by default.

The CPS aims to cast off its paper past through its Transforming through Technology programme (T3), a project designed to ensure CPS staff always have access to the information they need electronically.

T3 aims to link police and CPS computer systems to allow information to be shared automatically, end wasteful practices of photocopying, faxing and rekeying paper records, and to make case files available at the click of a button.

The digital drive promises to bring an air of modernity to stuffy courtroom chambers - possibly seeing prosecutors kitted out with Apple iPads and allowing police and lawyers to share large audio and video files in the cloud.

As well as making the CPS more efficient, T3 will be crucial to allowing the CPS to meet its commitment to the Treasury to reduce its budget by about five per cent each year until 2014-15.

CPS CIO David Jones said: "Most organisations might be able to do five or six per cent twice, [but] four times? The feeling here was that we needed to do something different."

From April 2012, Jones said the aim will be that "the masterfile is electronic and we receive, review, serve and prosecute the case wherever possible under digital means - only by exception will we default to paper".

"It brings efficiency and flexibility into the way in which we operate," he added.

The CPS is running...

...trial projects in England and Wales focused on the implications and challenges of different aspects of digital transformation - such as the best way of sharing digital information between the CPS and police, and how to record information electronically from court.

Summary sheets containing case information - such as the who, what, when and where of cases - can already be transferred between computer systems used by every police force in England and Wales and the CPS case management and witness management systems.

And from June this year, CPS staff and police forces in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester will test an interface that will allow the CPS to transfer information electronically back into police systems.

Jones said the existing information-sharing arrangement involves the CPS taking information sent digitally by the police, processing that information and then sending it back to police by email or fax, who then have to put it back into their computer systems - which he said is "not the most efficient way of exchanging information".

However, the CPS is not just engaged in setting up new ways of sharing information with police. Laptops with encrypted 3G connections are allowing prosecutors to access and update case file information from inside court.

Jones said a prosecutor in a recent court case in Wales was able to use one of these laptops for secure access to information held by police to answer a legal challenge and enable the case to be resolved the same day.

"They managed to finalise that [case] within the court with a 10-minute pause," Jones said.

"In an analogue world it perhaps would have required an adjournment, rescheduling, more evidence to be created and to go back to court in a few weeks time."

More recently, a prosecutor at Winchester Crown Court was able to use one of the laptops to record all the findings in a completed case on the CPS systems within moments of the case finishing.

The CPS had planned to provide CPS staff with about 2,000 of these secure laptops but now Jones says the service is evaluating whether tablet PCs might...

...be a better choice for prosecutors.

"We are trying to get the prosecutors, who are very much used to paper, to ease into the digital zone. If you think about presentation… a tablet device feels and acts like a book or a file. The one device that caught the eye was Apple iPad, because it hits the sweet spot in terms of ergonomics and ease of use."

David Jones believes the cloud would let police, CPS and defence lawyers share large files easily

Jones believes the cloud would let police, CPS and defence lawyers share large files easilyPhoto: CPS

Tablet-style devices are being tested by prosecutors in magistrates' courts in Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire.

Jones said the CPS will conduct market research with its suppliers to determine which tablet or other mobile computing devices would best serve its staff.

"We will have to make a call at some point over the next 12 months about what the fleet will look like in the next three years," he said.

Cloud computing could also allow the police, CPS, offender management teams and defence lawyers to share large files, such as video and audio recordings, easily.

The CPS is working with the Ministry of Justice to develop a cloud storage system called the repository, which would offer shared access to secure storage over an encrypted connection.

"We hope to have it in some form in a couple of months' time," Jones said.

"If you were to put a video file as an email attachment, there is a very good chance that you would be trying to split it into various chunks to get it delivered.

"The idea that you could handle complex case [evidence] by splitting it into bits and then hoping it came back together again - I don't think so."

If the CPS is to be digital by default, then the service will need robust networks in place to carry the electronic information flowing back and forth. As part of the T3 transformation, the CPS is upgrading the network links to its main offices to 100Mbps and to its court computers to 2Mbps.

And as well as streamlining the justice system, the T3 programme is attempting to simplify the way evidence is presented in court.

In North East England the CPS specialist fraud group, the Central Fraud Group North, is looking at...

...how presenting information in a digital form, rather than as printed documents, can make complex information easier for a jury to understand.

"For example, if you wanted to demonstrate how a number of people interacted over a period of time, there are some clever presentational techniques to do that," Jones said, adding that prosecutors might illustrate the timeline using a storyboard or animation.

The technique was recently used to streamline information presented in a court case involving the loss of £18m to the exchequer, with many complex commercial transactions and 100,000 pages of evidence.


The Crown Prosecution Service is improving its ability to share information electronically with police forcesPhoto: Shutterstock

Jones said it was also "far more expensive" to reproduce and print documents relating to complex court cases than it was to produce such information digitally.

The infrastructure upgrades to support the T3 programme come from a £125m contract extension that CPS struck with its IT suppliers Logica and Global Crossing in 2009.

But as Jones points out, the idea of T3 is not building a Big Bang new computer system or purchasing cutting-edge technology, but getting more out of existing CPS infrastructure.

He said basing a criminal justice system on paper records was no longer necessary or sensible in today's interconnected digital world.

"I have a feeling that somewhere around the country there's a warehouse with a paper copy of records for the CPS, the defence copy, the judge's copy, the court's copy and the police copy - all sitting side by side waiting for five to 10 years to go by, at which point we will each pay for those records to be destroyed," he said.

"It's not a sensible way of working if you've already got good quality IT infrastructure and people who are savvy at using it."

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