Lucy Frazer, the justice minister, faces warnings that the criminal justice system is reaching crisis point. Thousands of cases have been disrupted, with trials adjourned and delayed, after the main computer system in England and Wales went down at hundreds of courts. The Times reports that one senior figure said the system was “on its knees”.
- Prison visits and meetings cancelled.
- Lawyers and clerks unable to access documents such as witness statements.
- Defendants being asked to check their own driver records for potential disqualifications on the DVLA website.
- Problems in the probation service surfaced eight weeks ago; probation workers are being told to take annual leave as they could not carry out their work.
- 75,000 judges and lawyers who use the criminal justice secure email system were locked out last week.
- The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said it estimated that about 30 trials had already been adjourned.
Chris Grayling, during his term as lord chancellor, introduced the present IT system as “a several hundred million-pound investment in the Courts and Tribunal Service . . . fully supported by the judiciary and a really important initiative of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together in coalition to modernise the working of our courts”.
Comment by Jonathan Black, a partner at BSB Solicitors and former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association:
“Since 2013, when Grayling was brought in to manage transformation of our justice system, we saw a plethora of projects prefixed with the word transforming, which was window-dressing for selling off.”
Comment by Chris Henley, QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents about 4,000 lawyers:
“The unrealistic planning has all the hallmarks of a Grayling project. He has repeated the trick everywhere he has been. We’ve seen it with the probation contract, private prisons and more recently the railways. We are living with his destructive, nihilistic legacy in all areas of legal aid and the courts . . .
“The closure of so many buildings, the ‘rationalisation’ of staff etc are all premised on the basis that the modernisation programme will create a cheaper digitised replacement system. Lawyers and many judges have no confidence in this planned overhaul of the courts and have serious reservations from a public policy point of view.”
He warned that trials could collapse. “Trials are being adjourned, the IT infrastructure is inaccessible in many places, electronic recording systems aren’t working and barristers can’t access vital documents because court wifi and secure emails aren’t working,” he said. “The system is on its knees.”
Lucy Frazer, the justice minister said that all judges would receive a personal letter from Sir Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary at the MoJ, who would also meet the chief executive of Atos, one of the network suppliers. She added that the department was exploring whether the suppliers’ contracts included “penalty clauses” to try to retrieve some of the costs incurred by the IT failures.
A spokesman said that the secure email system, supplied by Egress, had been restored. The desktops using wired connections to the main MoJ network, provided by Microsoft and Atos, were still down. Microsoft and Egress referred inquiries to the Ministry of Justice. Atos declined to comment.