Michael Cross

It was joined-up justice at its most impressive. Police computers captured evidence at the scene of the crime and fed it into an electronic file built up by the Crown Prosecution Service. Essential data was then shared seamlessly with the defence and the court and eventually with the prisons and probation service.

There was one snag: this was ’vapourware’ - just a slide-show presentation of what the criminal justice system would look like in three years. And the year was 2005. I was being treated to an exclusive ‘walk through’ of something called the Criminal Justice IT programme, a £2bn attempt by the Home Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs (Tony Blair’s short-lived reincarnation of the Lord Chancellor’s Department) to leap from an era of missing paper files, postponed hearings and cracked trials with the help of new technology. 

Of course it didn’t turn out that way, and certainly not within three years. Along with a swathe of IT-based transformation projects across the public sector, the Criminal Justice IT programme foundered on the rocks of over-ambition and what management consultants call 'lack of stakeholder engagement’. We in the press wrote it off as just another government computing fiasco. 

So it was with a sense of nostalgia that I read this week's National Audit Office report into what in some ways is an even more radical justice transformation, HMCTS's £1.2bn courts reform programme. The report sounds familiar tocsins, including the programme's:

  • Ambitious scale, involving remodelling the physical courts estate, changing users' behaviour and replacing more than 70 different legacy systems inherited when HMCTS was formed 25 years ago.
  • Tight timetables. The programme is due to be completed by 2022. 
  • Dependence on multiple stakeholders, including many outside HMCTS' direct control; notably the judiciary.
  • Benefits emerging late in the programme, and not necessarily on the people expected to do the work.

These were exactly the factors that killed off the most hubristic IT projects of the naughties - most notably the £12bn National Programme for IT in the NHS. However when learning from history we should beware of ignoring changing cultures, and of extrapolating trends in straight lines (a point brilliantly made by the late Hans Rosling in his new book Factfulness). 

There are good reasons why the story of IT-based courts transformation may be different this time.

A big one is our cultural readiness to do things digitally. In 2005, remember, the iPhone was still two years in the future and the idea of entrusting critical transactions to the internet was regarded as mildly insane. We are now in a different world. As Sir Geoffrey Vos, chancellor of the High Court said last night, 'the millennial generation, which expect to be able to obtain everything they want in an instant on their mobile devices, will not make an exception for justice’. 

Another, acknowledged by the National Audit Office, is that HMCTS has learned lessons from the old generation of failed 'big bang' IT implementations. In particular it has adopted ‘agile’ methodology, testing and refining components separately before they are brought together. 

Finally, and perhaps most important from HMCTS's point of view, is the 'burning platform' argument: things are so bad now that no one can sensibly argue against change. The NAO notes that the reform programme itself has added to the pressure by not replacing departing courts staff if their roles are ultimately to be abolished. 'This has resulted in some gaps,' the NAO observes with understatement. But if building a sense of crisis is part of HMCTS' masterplan, it is a very high risk one.