Computerising the courts

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Photo by FruitMonkey.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Photo by FruitMonkey.

What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.

— G.W.F. Hegel, quoted by Lord Thomas

In April 1999, the civil justice system in England and Wales was transformed by the implementation of the “Woolf reforms”. The procedural changes were based on a report by Lord Woolf, published in 1996, and were intended to be introduced alongside new computer systems that would enable the new processes to work effectively. Last night, Lord Woolf’s successor as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, explained (in the SCL Annual Lecture) why a programme to introduce those systems is now getting under way – fifteen years later.

In the first part of his lecture, Lord Thomas (starting with the line from Hegel quoted above) set out a brief and dispiriting history of the original attempts to computerise the courts between 1996 and 2004. These attempts were eventually abandoned after spending cuts in 2002 and 2004, and since then only piecemeal improvements have been made. Now, however, the government has allocated “between £300m and £400m” to introducing the required case management systems. (The audience politely refrained from pointing out that this is still less than the £600m cost estimated in the early 2000s.)

Lord Thomas then outlined nine lessons that the new project was seeking to learn from the previous failures. Some (not all) of these have relevance to large IT projects in other sectors:

  1. Security of funding – not just a hope the money will be there.
  2. A common approach across all branches of the court system.
  3. Judicial participation and governance [which, in other sectors, presumably equates to board-level engagement).
  4. Clear agreement at the outset of what is needed.
  5. Design of systems and procurement must work in tandem from the start, with good, well-managed contracts.
  6. Envisage technological change and build anticipated future developments into the plans.
  7. Continuity of personnel and planning.
  8. Processes should be built around IT, not IT around processes. IT isn’t just a way of automating what we already do, but of doing things in a new way.
  9. Need to be realistic in setting expectations, especially where previous failures have engendered cynicism among stakeholders.

One thought was troubling me throughout this, and during the Q&A. I raised it in a rather half-formed way during the Q&A, but subsequent discussion with other delegates brought it into sharper focus.

The issue is this: Lord Thomas kept talking about “a system”, or “an IT system”. At worst, this could imply a rather monolithic IT project of the type that government is now supposedly seeking to avoid, and which could quickly become outdated (one questioner had been involved in the National Programme for IT in the NHS, so he spoke with some feeling about the potential risks). When I queried this, Lord Thomas pointed out (quite reasonably) that he had been using the phrase as shorthand for a portfolio of “modular” systems, thus enabling parts of the system to be updated piecemeal as required in later years.

However, the thinking still seems to be very much “system” focused, even if “the system” is modular in nature. It was also hard to avoid a sense that the courts are still thinking in terms of “software” that you install on “a computer” sat on someone’s “desk”. As other delegates pointed out to me in conversation afterwards, an alternative approach is to focus on creating a framework and standards which can be used by a wide range of different systems, without the need to impose the same software on every court in the country at all times (even if in a “modular” way). Others suggested that seeking “clear agreement at the outset” might be misguided in the age of Agile development.

Easy for us to say, of course. Lord Thomas made the very fair (and illuminating) point that England and Wales is one of the largest legal jurisdictions in the world, and that we have a unitary court system – in contrast to Germany’s sixteen Länder, or the patchwork of state and federal courts in the United States. Any project to computerise such a system is going to be highly complex and difficult to achieve, but the alternative is a court system that is costly and inefficient. So I wish the new project well; but I remain uneasy. 


Schofield’s Laws of Computing: your cut-out-and-keep guide

Jack Schofield (and Pipe), by Aleks Krotoski

Photo by Aleks Krotoski.

The Guardian’s computer editor, Jack Schofield, has formulated three “laws of computing” over the years.

I’ve found these useful to keep in mind, both in my own personal use of computers and in advising on IT contracts, so here is a quick post bringing all three together in one short list:

  • Schofield’s First Law: never put data into a program unless you can see exactly how to get it out.
  • Schofield’s Second Law: data doesn’t really exist unless you have at least two copies of it.
  • Schofield’s Third Law: the easier it is for you to access your data, the easier it is for someone else to access your data.

Of those, I’d say the first is the most useful in a commercial IT context. (This post was prompted by reviewing a contract in which our ability to do this isn’t as set out as clearly as I’d like, though I’m sure it’s not going to be a problem in practice.)

In my personal IT use, it’s the second law that is the one I always keep in mind – and that I try to find a gentle way of pointing out to people when they are mourning the loss of family photographs in a hard drive crash or laptop theft. Dropbox is your friend, people! 

The third law is both vaguer and probably of wider application – particularly after the Year of Snowden has highlighted how porous supposedly “secure” IT systems can be.