A 'major disruption' that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos. Lawyers on the front line have told the Gazette that trials have been delayed, jurors have been unable to enrol and practitioners have been prevented from confirming attendance that will enable them to get paid.
Last week the ministry's digital and technology team said most systems were improving. However, the Gazette has spoken to practitioners whose experiences suggest otherwise.
A criminal barrister who spent the day in Leicester Crown Court yesterday told the Gazette that none of the court’s computer systems were operational, jurors could not be enrolled, and no advocates could sign into the Ministry of Justice’s XHIBIT system, an online service that logs lawyers’ attendance so they can get paid.
A lawyer who is at Lincoln Crown Court said the XHIBIT system is down again today. The Crown Court Digital Case System, on which all cases are now accessed, is also down.
A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates' Court in London at 9.15am yesterday, where there were several clients in the cells. However, the jailers did not know which courts the cases would be heard in. The solicitor spoke to a client with mental health and 'profound' learning difficulties who was arrested on Saturday and had no papers. The criminal justice secure email system was down and there was no Wi-Fi in the building. The clerk's online system was not working and nor were the three bench members' iPads - so they had no access to any papers before the hearings.
A solicitor said he had two overnight cases while the CJSM was down and had to wait until 11am to go to the prosecution liaison officer 'and ask him to print bits and pieces from the police systems while the CPS and court systems were down'.
The Gazette was told that several people attended Scarborough Magistrates' Court last week to make statutory declarations in respect of driving matters. 'Most of these people had come suited and booted, with all the anxiety that marks ordinary members of the public out as different from the frequent flyers who regularly come before the courts. These poor souls were left hanging around all morning, until 1pm, when they were advised that the systems were still not back up. Two of them agreed to come back on an adjourned date, 14 days later, but one of them explained that he couldn’t take further time off work. He was asked to come back in the afternoon, in the vain hope that the case management system might be back online.'
Another solicitor said: 'One of the most galling things, from a defence practitioner's point of view actually happened on Friday. We received a call from counsel not instructed in a matter, but who stood in at the last minute, as he realised another member of his chambers who was instructed was not present at a hearing that had been listed. The resident judge had made an order in the hearing that we were not made aware of, requiring an explanation, apology and a reason why wasted costs should not be made against us for our non-attendance at the hearing. Neither my firm, nor instructed defending counsel had been informed of the hearing, as CJSM was not working, not CCDCS.
'In my several years of qualification I have never missed a hearing, so I was fuming that we were being blamed for not attending at something we had no notice of, and my colleague spent the rest of Friday afternoon putting together a full explanation regarding the supposed default, and arguing against wasted costs. I understand that the "ring out" was done by CJSM email, on the Thursday evening, which has still not been received as at Tuesday lunchtime.'
The Gazette has also been told of connectivity problems at Southwark Crown Court and the Old Bailey yesterday. Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court was reportedly without internet access for the whole of last week.
A criminal defence solicitor tweeted over the weekend that during a prison visit, she was told that the court was unable to email warrants over to prisons on the previous day to enable them to release defendants granted bail.
Probation staff are understood to be experiencing IT issues as well, unable to access files and assessments for over a week.
Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘Short-term savings often result in wider costs to the public purse and cause a broken criminal justice system to fall further apart. Crumbling court buildings are bad enough for court users - both the public and criminal practitioners - but digital failures can have far more profound consequences for all those awaiting trial.
‘Prolonged IT failures do a disservice to the victims of crime and their families who may have already suffered the costs of delays from an already overstretched, chronically underfunded, broken criminal justice system.’
An email sent to barristers and solicitors from the Legal Aid Agency yesterday said internal issues are ‘starting to improve’, but that there are still intermittent issues. ‘Work is still under way to fully resolve the issue,’ the email added.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said last night: 'We apologise to those who have been affected by network issues that we have been experiencing today. Contingency plans are in place and courts have continued to operate but we know how frustrating this is for court users. We are pressing our suppliers to provide urgent solutions so that services can return to normal as soon as possible.'