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.
Just Solutions International, the commercial wing of Britain’s Ministry of Justice, has been selling ‘expertise’ to oppressive regimes including Oman and the Saudis. It was established under Mr Gove’s predecessor Chris Grayling in 2013, assisted by ‘professional services network’ PwC but Michael Gove, Minister for Justice, has now closed it amid criticism that it was selling prison expertise to countries with poor human rights records.
Corbyn, “but why on earth was it set up in the first place?”
A few days ago, Hencke reported that Jeremy Corbyn had challenged David Cameron to explain why the British government could not cancel a contract with the Saudis to provide training for their prison system – just as it was about to execute a teenage dissident and crucify him (below right).
Jeremy Corbyn had written: “Will you step in to terminate the Ministry of Justice’s bid to provide services to the Saudi prisons system – the very body, I should stress, which will be responsible for carrying out Ali’s execution? . . . Ali’s case is especially urgent – the secrecy of the Saudi system means that he could face execution at any time, and even his family may only find out after the event. There is therefore no time to spare in taking this up with the Saudi authorities, if we are to prevent a grave injustice.”
In his conference speech, addressing Cameron, Corbyn added: “And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice’s to provide services for Saudi Arabia – which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.”
Though it was alleged that the government would face punitive penalty clauses for cancelling the contract, less than two days afterwards, the minister retracted this explanation, admitting that no financial penalties applied and Parliament had been given “incorrect information.” He had to “apologise unreservedly” in a letter to the MP, Nigel Huddleston, Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire.
The critical factor: HMG’s broader engagement with Saudi Arabia
Hencke had highlighted the real reason they did not cancel in a Tribune article; in the words of Andrew Selous, the junior minister at the Ministry of Justice: “The critical factor was the strong view from across Government that withdrawing at such an advance stage would harm HMG’s broader engagement with Saudi Arabia.
Michael Gove’s finer hour
The withdrawal follows the Times reports of a cabinet rift on the issue: Michael Gove, the justice secretary, wanted to pull out of the deal, saying the government should not be assisting a regime that uses beheadings, stoning, crucifixions and lashings to punish its citizens. The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had warned that cancelling it would not be in the national interest as it would make Britain appear an untrustworthy ally – and No 10 had agreed, the paper reported.
David Hencke adds that Lord Falconer, the shadow Lord Chancellor, has reported this to the National Audit Office – because Just Solutions International.deserves a thorough financial examination. He gives credit to lawyer David Allen Green – known as Jack O’Kent on Twitter- who has assiduously followed this issue. He can be followed on the JackofKentblog which carries an account with snapshots from the Times article.
Nicholas Watt and Alan Travis in the Guardian report, “Corbyn responded to the cancellation saying: “David Cameron has been shamed into a U-turn, a strong message to repressive regimes that the UK is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain’s standing in the world on this terrible contract, but why on earth was it set up in the first place?”