Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter May, discusses the ongoing digitalisation of justice, the impact of Covid-19 and the opportunities for advancement under the Digital Justice Strategy 2020–2025.
May begins by emphasising the unique nature of the operating system within justice and pinpointing the operating environment as the greatest challenge of transformation within the sector.
The highly complex system involves a range of different organisations, many of which are independent in terms of their decision-making. In IT terms, this means a range of operating systems and as May outlines, progress requires a collective will.
“To be truly effective and for the system to be effective, all organisations have to work in close collaboration as the actions taken by one partner impacts on another. Users of the system, including victims, witnesses and those accused, experience justice as one continuum and not a series of separate experiences, so we need a system that recognises the independence but also the inter-dependence of all partners if it is to work.”
The challenges of agencies’ inter-dependence in relation to digital, is aided by a mature data-sharing hub in the form of Causeway. The Causeway system at the heart of the criminal justice has evolved from its original case management format in the noughties to one which enables enhanced management information capabilities and sharing between five major criminal justice agencies.
May believes that the system, which handles over 12 million messages annually, is the only system of its kind in Europe. Outlining its two major design principles, May says that system ensures that information is captured once at the point it enters the justice system, enabling it to be shared and reused electronically. The second design principle is the onus on agencies to not only retain and manage their own business systems but critically, to follow defined business processes and to meet common data, communication, and security standards.
“To be truly effective and for the system to be effective, all organisations have to work in close collaboration as the actions taken by one partner impacts on another.”
The Justice Permanent Secretary outlines multiple benefits attained from the Causeway system including greater accuracy, cost saving and faster justice but explains that a fundamental benefit has been a better end-to-end understanding of the criminal justice system, enabling partner organisations to better understand the implications of their actions on each other.
It is for this reason that the system formed a central pillar of the Digital Justice Strategy 2020-2025 approved by the Criminal Justice Board in May 2020. “Developed collaboratively with criminal justice partners, the strategy did not seek to replace the digital justice strategies of individual agencies but instead build on them to ensure a co-ordinated approach to digital developments and to maximise opportunities to deliver a more effective justice system,” May explains.
Setting the context for the Strategy’s ambitions, May highlights the existing effort to digitise. He points to the launch of the new Probate Portal and the new digital Legal Aid Management System (LAMS) recently as exemplars. Additionally, May explains that Covid-19 has accelerated massively the use of digital, including video technology. Offering an example, the Permanent Secretary explains that a pre-Covid average of 100 remote connections for courts is being dwarfed by current monthly averages of around 600,000. At the same time over 60,000 remote digital visits have taken place across Northern Ireland’s three prisons.
The Strategy was developed with three key principles of citizen engagement, collaboration, and modernisation. Alongside the principles, May outlines the key themes included as:
- digital communication and skills: “How do we increase public confidence in the justice system by communicating more effectively with those that come into contact with it”;
- a more effective justice system: “One of our most enduring challenges is delivering justice in a faster, more effective way while retaining fairness and we want to use advances in technology to help with this”; and
- innovation: “To look for the new approaches that would make the biggest impact for the future”.
Turning to what this means in practice, May outlines some of the digital programmes currently being developed under these key themes:
Digital communications and skills: My Justice Journey is the provision of tailored information in one place for all who come in to contact with the justice system, being developed with the needs of victims and witnesses at the core. Additionally, the theme looks at capability and skills, recognising that any transformation is fundamentally about people and the existing need to invest in training and development for all of those using the system. Project-related digital skills will be a workstream within each of the digital justice projects.
“The challenge we are tackling is respecting the independence of all of the justice organisations but also ensuring we work together to produce something that is more significant than the sum of its parts.”
A more effective justice system: Sharing digital evidence electronically, between justice agencies and ultimately with the defence including for body worn video and CCTV, will contribute to a faster system with information security benefits.
Innovation: The PPS and the PSNI are leading on examining how technological advances could be used to improve disclosure of information in criminal cases and have recently published a Disclosure Improvement Plan. Additionally, in relation to data analytics, the Strategy aims to improve analysis of the vast array of data held by the Causeway system, offering a better understanding of the nature of crimes being reported and using this to drive further efficiencies and effectiveness in the justice system.
Concluding, May reiterates that the main challenge is our operating environment and its complexity. “The challenge we are tackling is respecting the independence of all of the justice organisations but also ensuring we work together to produce something that is more significant than the sum of its parts. And fundamentally, to improve how that works for those who come into contact with the justice system.
“We are seeking to build on the progress we have made in relation to the Causeway system by taking the benefits and adapting from Covid in a way that allows us to progress on the Strategy’s key principles.”