A new £20m project to create a shared portal for digital evidence in criminal cases is set to become the ‘backbone’ of moves towards greater collaboration between Scotland’s criminal justice partners, according to senior government officials.

The recently-launched digital evidence sharing capability (DESC) project – involving police, crown prosecutors, the courts and government – will help usher in a new era of wider technologically-driven sharing of information at every stage of a criminal investigation.

In order to improve efficiencies between what is viewed by many as a ‘Victorian’ courts system – and to deliver upon Scotland’s most senior judge Lord Carloway’s desire to take ‘bigger strides’ towards fully digitising the justice process – the DESC initiative was showcased at FutureScot’s Digital Justice & Policing conference, which took place at The Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh on Tuesday this week.

Fiona Cameron, Head of Justice Digital and Strategy Unit, Criminal Justice Division, The Scottish Government, said: “DESC has a significance beyond what it will deliver in its own right; it’s really about the significance of joining our justice partners together in a digital sense and DESC will deliver for the first time a single technical platform that will span the whole of the system and join up the whole criminal justice system. It will give us that digital backbone for the system which we haven’t had until now that will deliver the functionality at every part of the system.

“But it’s more than just joining up the organisations in a digital sense; DESC offers us the opportunity to join up in a people sense, in DESC we really have the opportunity to work together in a way that we haven’t worked together before, and we’re trying to leverage that. We’re using DESC as a pathfinder to create a different way of working, embedding colleagues from our partner organisations within a core central team. And it’s about also using that core central team to get out amongst criminal justice organisations and with users to properly understand their needs.

She added: “We hope that through working in a new way that we will be able to deliver that digital transformation. Beyond coming together as a collaboration with Scottish Government and with criminal justice partners we recognise that we also need to work in collaboration with commercial partners who will bring us skills and agility that we would never have if we attempted to do this on our own.”

Cameron, a former criminal prosecutor, said that Scotland is also ‘uniquely’ positioned to deliver upon those objectives, given its size and close-knit criminal justice community. Strategically, the Scottish Government is working on ever-closer alignment of objectives between criminal justice partners, which Willie Cowan, Deputy Director, Criminal Justice, outlined in his speech at the conference. He said that historically the main justice agencies had been all been constitutionally independent, and that was necessary, but that the all-too-common experience of victims and witnesses being let down by a system that was too prone to duplication, with vulnerable people having to ‘re-tell’ their stories, and cases being delayed.

He said: “We need to use the technology that’s available to us to get things done quicker, faster and more efficiently – we cannot be moving hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of bits of paper around the system, inefficiently, maybe ineffectively and delaying justice; if we delay justice for the victims by not being efficient and for people who are accused and end up not being found guilty, we delay justice for them as well. We in government absolutely recognise that.” Cowan said that next year’s Justice Vision & Priorities strategic document is likely to be updated with a renewed focus on how victims and witnesses are dealt within the system, and a new service design project being led by Victim Support Scotland is likely to be a major driver of change in that context.

More than 150 delegates gathered for the full-day conference, which reflected not only the work of the DESC project – which aims to improve the end user experience of accessing justice services provided by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, Police Scotland and The Scottish Government – but also of the Digitally Enabled Policing Programme (DEPP), which is at the heart of largescale transformation and investment in technology for frontline officers in Police Scotland. Chief Superintendent Matt Richards, who has management responsibility for the DEPP programme, said that the force was making great progress in flattening out the 100 different legacy systems it inherited from the previously separate eight police forces and is working towards creating a ‘future integrated digital platform’, featuring the likes of wearable technology, digital case management and predictive analytics, on the way to what he called ‘quick and slick’ policing.

Leading justice partner organisations showcased their solutions at the event, including Headline Sponsor Axon, Leidos, Egress, Unisys, AWS, Forensic Analytics, Aurion Learning, Nuix, GBG and Motorola Solutions.