‘So far, a pilot of an all-electronic criminal justice system is working in only one of England’s 42 criminal justice areas. Getting the rest up to speed by 2008 will be a delicate task.’

That classic example of understated fence-perching journalism appeared in the Guardian newspaper in 2003. I recall it because I wrote it. It was the wrap-up line of an interview with the newly appointed head of a five-year programme to computerise the criminal justice system.

The techie vision in 2003 was of a single electronic case file, created at the first report of a crime, growing in size as an individual is arrested, charged, remanded, tried, serves a prison sentence and is released. At every stage of the linear process, those involved - from police officers to prosecutors to probation workers - would use and share sub-sets of data from the same file, with never a sheet of paper cluttering up the process.

If the idea rings a bell, it may be because this week the justice minister, Damian Green, outlined something very similar as a way of removing unacceptable delays in the criminal justice system. The aim, he said, ‘must be a single case file that progresses electronically right through the system from police to court and then prison or probation without constant re-keying of information’.

Will it work this time round? I am cautiously optimistic. Believe it or not, technology has come a long way since 2003 (that was before Facebook, remember), mainly in the availability of cheap and usable portable devices that will be essential for creating seamless case files. Equally as important is the change in consumer attitudes: on my tube journey to work, far more people read Kindles, iPads or smartphones (still four years in the future in 2003) than paper books or magazines.

Meanwhile, although the evidence is not yet definitive, the public sector has got better at running IT programmes, with agile developments based on open systems replacing billion-pound contracts.

Against that, there are still formidable problems. These include incompatible legacy systems and the lack of suitability in much of our courts estate. A more fundamental issue is whether the criminal justice process, which looks so neat and linear on management consultants’ PowerPoint slides, can be shoehorned into single case files in the real world.

An interesting comparator is the programme to create electronic health records. Heaven knows, the NHS has had enough trouble with that – and it is working with the advantage that health records are designed around customers who are identifiable from cradle to grave. Crimes are messier, and may involve a constantly changing cast of suspects, including unknown ones. 

Finally, there’s the question, raised trenchantly by defence solicitors, of how we are going to pay for all this shiny new kit.

Paradoxically, however, the current financial situation is one reason why Green’s vision may be more realistic this time round. A decade ago, when ministers were chucking cash at IT projects, no one minded too much if the resulting systems didn’t get used. In the current climate, as the court service’s IT chief said last November, there is no slack for running dual electronic and paper systems.

The new tech will have to be made to work, however uncomfortable that is for practitioners.

I’ll repeat my warning about the ‘delicate task’, however. Though this time I suspect it will take less than 10 years to prove me right.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

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