Unlocking the digital toolbox

It’s all too easy to characterise justice with the image of dusty law books and protracted detail-heavy processes.

One thing the pandemic has done is show what Scottish justice is capable of in terms of innovation and adopting technology.

A year ago, trials were wrapping up, with the courts about to be silent for almost six months. Yet now, in the latest lockdown, we have virtual custody hearings, remote juries and electronic signatures.

Technology has been a key enabler for many of the innovative solutions being implemented by our justice system partners,” says Willie Cowan, deputy director, Criminal Justice Division at the Scottish Government.

“Remote jury centres and virtual custody courts are allowing essential business to continue, with work going on to consider greater use of technology in trial settings,” he adds.

In fact, the investment in remote jury centres means that since the first remote jury centre opened at an Edinburgh cinema in September 2020, trials are back to pre-Covid levels and more than 3,500 virtual custody hearings have been completed.

These changes to the traditional way of working were made possible by the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, which was passed as emergency legislation and included measures which allowed the justice system to adapt quickly and function flexibly.

For instance, it enabled the use of electronic signatures which minimised the need for staff and the public to be physically in contact or on justice premises. The Covid-19 restrictions had a significant impact on the number and ways that trials could take place in courts. This affected not only victims, witnesses and defendants, but also lawyers, judges and court officers.

“These are, of course, issues being faced by jurisdictions around the world and while there are no simple and immediate solutions, Scotland’s justice system should be given great credit for the urgent, effective and collaborative work it has undertaken in response to the pandemic, supported by the Scottish Government,” says Cowan, who was a keynote speaker at FutureScot’s Digital Justice & Policing 2021 conference on 11 March.

“Much has been achieved in spite of the pandemic, with significant developments in the utilisation of technology, the delivery of the remote jury centre model which now enables pre-Covid levels of court activity and embracing new ways of working.

“Our justice system has changed and evolved over the last 12 months, and will continue to do so as we recover, renew and transform the system in the coming years.”

The challenges of managing the demands put on civil and criminal proceedings during the pandemic did not come cheaply. Cowan says: “We understand the impact trial delays have on victims, witnesses and accused, and this was a key driver behind the provision of £12m to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) for remote jury centres, in addition to £3m made available to develop court technology. We also allocated an additional £5.75m in-year to help support additional pressures on third sector organisations working with victims and witnesses.

“Most recently, and subject to parliamentary confirmation, in the draft budget statement we committed an additional £50m to support the Recover, Renew, Transform (RRT) programme. This will be used to increase capacity across the justice system as we tackle backlogs built up while necessary public health restric-tions are in place.”

Established in June 2020, the RRT programme aims to recover essential services and, in due course, renew and transform how the justice system operates to ensure a resilient, effective system now and for the future. “It supports a coordinated approach between justice organisations as we respond to ongoing public health requirements and plan to emerge from them. The RRT measures are contributing to recovering an improved justice system, rather than the system we had immediately pre-Covid,” adds Cowan.

It is a continuing process. “The Criminal Justice Board meets fortnightly to oversee the programme and ensure it is implemented, recognising the needs and rights of all court users, and considering the whole system impacts of address-ing the backlog,” explains Cowan. Looking back over the past 12 months what stands out among the innovations made? “The setting up of the remote jury centres is a key achievement for the sector. These trials operate in a safe and effective manner thanks to the video conferencing solutions that have been put in place.

“We have also completed over 3,500 virtual custody hearings as part of a pilot scheme which, in due course, is designed to deliver a national operating framework.” Cowan admits: “There are always challenges when implementing, especially at short notice, a digital replacement for an existing service or method of doing things, but there has been a concerted effort across the system to overcome these and great success delivered as a result.”

Willie Cowan, deputy director, Criminal Justice division, Scottish Government

 

One area of concern has been digital exclusion and in particular how it impacts victims and witnesses. “The effective consideration of human rights and equalities issues is central to the work of the RRT programme,” says Cowan. “An advisory group provides insight into the varied rights and needs of those impacted by the system and considers how best to reflect the views of individuals with lived experience back into the decision-making process.“

The group also assists in informing equality and human rights impact assessments across the programme, comments on further evaluation/monitoring requirements, and provides guidance on mitigations required and trauma-informed approaches that could be adopted.”

The group’s discussions are fed back to both the Criminal Justice Board and those working on the individual projects and the programme as a whole. Twelve months on, the justice landscape now looks very different for the legal practitioners – the judges, courtroom staff and lawyers. Cowan believes the experience for many has been “generally positive”.

“We have many meetings with our stakeholders and any emerging issues of concern are discussed openly and with a view to agreeing a way forward. Clearly there have been issues –and that is to be expected, and it is right that they are recognised, discussed, and appropriately responded to.”

Work is still in progress on pre-Covid transformation projects. “We have been working hard, along with our partners in Police Scotland, COPFS and SCTS, to progress the Digital Evidence Sharing Capability programme as quickly as we can to the extent that, as we speak, we are in the final stages of procurement.”

Cowan adds: “It’s obvious to say in hindsight, but no contingency planning could have prepared us for a global pandemic that came upon all of us so quickly and impacted society as a whole.

“In recovering, renewing and transforming the justice system in the coming years we will revisit contingency planning and the real meaning of resilience in some detail and absolutely learn from this experience.”

Looking to the future, Cowan says that while the resumption of jury trials is a positive development, he cautions that “we must be realistic about the scale of the backlog of cases awaiting hear-ings in court and the speed with which it will be capable of being addressed”.

He adds: “The additional £50m funding will be used to increase capacity for cases to proceed across the system and at a recent roundtable event with key players in the justice system discussion focused around what the next steps are to tackle these challenges.

“I think there is a general consensus that we should not aim to recover what was in place pre-Covid – our ambition needs to be much, much greater than that. What that ultimately looks like is yet to be determined, but I think the actions of the justice system in the last year has demonstrated a huge appetite and ambition to stretch the art of the possible to its maximum,” he says.

“Technology opens up a whole new toolbox of opportunity going forward,” Cowan observes.

 

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