Normal service should, by now, have resumed for solicitors working in courts crippled by last week’s Ministry of Justice IT network issues. The disruption, which received heavy media coverage, prompted suspicions (eventually discounted) of cyber-attack and rumours (denied) about prisoners being released by mistake.
The ministry insists the IT fiasco is unrelated to its £1bn courts modernisation plans. If anything, justice minister Lucy Frazer QC told MPs last week, the problems show precisely why the government is right to modernise a service currently relying on a patchwork of outdated systems.
So, what exactly happened? It began a fortnight ago, when the Criminal Justice Secure Email (CJSM) system was struck by, in the government’s words, a ‘major service degradation’. Within 36 hours around 24,000 regular users were affected. The fix involved synchronising solicitors’ mailboxes, which would require emptying them. Meanwhile the Legal Aid Agency emailed practitioners to say it was experiencing ‘intermittent issues’ with its internal web-based applications.
On 18 January, the ministry’s digital and technology team tweeted that there had been a ‘major disruption to a number of our IT systems this week. Most systems are now improving’. The Gazette spoke to practitioners whose experiences suggested otherwise. A criminal barrister spent the day in Leicester Crown Court where none of the court’s computer systems was working, jurors could not be enrolled and advocates could not sign in to record their attendance.
A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates’ Court in London in the morning to find clients in the cells and the jailers not knowing which courts their cases were being heard in. The clerk’s online system was not working and nor were the three bench iPads – so they had no access to any papers before the hearings.
There were connectivity problems at Southwark Crown Court and the Old Bailey. Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court was reportedly without internet access for a week. Probation staff were understood to be unable to access files and assessments for over a week.
Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi was granted an urgent question in the House of Commons last Wednesday, where Frazer told her that the ‘intermittent disruption’ was caused by ‘an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre’.
Because we have invested in Wi-Fi in courts, many staff could continue to work during this incident
Lucy Frazer QC, justice minister
The ministry’s permanent secretary, Richard Heaton, met the chief executive of Atos, one of the two main suppliers, the same day. Asked about financial penalty clauses, Frazer said her department would ‘look carefully’ at the contracts, ‘which include penalty clauses’.
Frazer batted away MPs’ concerns that the breakdown had shown the government has gone too far with cuts. ‘The simple truth of it is that if we had a better, more fully funded system, there would be proper back-ups and this rumbling problem would have been sorted out a long time ago,’ grumbled Conservative MP Anna Soubry.
Frazer had a different take: ‘I should say that it is because we have recently invested in the courts service that we had Wi-Fi back-up. The issue was in relation to the server, but because we have invested in Wi-Fi in courts up and down the country, many staff could continue to work during this incident.’
Even if the £1bn reform project has nothing to do with the network issues, how did the minister explain the CJSM’s ‘major service degradation’?
Frazer said her department was ‘very disappointed that our suppliers haven’t yet been able to resolve the network problems in full’. Investigations into what went wrong were still ongoing as the Gazette went to press.
Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of justice, said that if the problems were caused by a failure in the supplier’s data centre, he hoped ‘that it would be the IT suppliers, rather than the taxpayer, who will bear the ultimate cost in compensating our members for the losses that they have incurred’.
Heaton has written to members of the judiciary about the IT issues. But judges were not the only ones affected.
As Miller pointed out: ‘Solicitors have struggled valiantly to try to work around these problems where possible, and continue to maintain their vital role in ensuring that the justice system functions properly. They are ill able to bear the financial losses this IT problem has caused them.’
- An MoJ statement on Friday said: ’As of 25 January, all Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sites are operational with IT network connectivity restored. We are continuing to carefully monitor the situation and will work with individual users where any issues arise.’