Sunday, December 09, 2012

Keep Taking The Tablets

From Bystander J


Technology is slowly starting to arrive in the Magistrates' Court. The CPS is starting to load up case files onto shiny new pads thus avoiding lugging around tonnes of paper between courts and office. Great idea yes? Actually, not really. Here’s one scenario, probably repeated at a court near you.

Picture the scene at Blanktown Mags. It has 8 courts sitting at any one time, at least 3 of which are dealing with adult CPS matters today, 1 busy remand court and 2 trial courts. The remand court has a CPS staffer complete with pad. The 2 trial courts have CPS agents armed with paper files. One of the trial courts collapses (probably due to the fact that the CPS has failed to provide primary disclosure to the defence – but that’s a whole different posting!!). The court offers help to their hard pressed colleagues in the remand court. But wait…all the CPS files are loaded onto the shiny pad…there are no other papers for the CPS agent to work from…all he or she can do is borrow the court papers which are fairly minimal (the charge sheet only at first hearing perhaps) leading to embarrassment, inefficiency, delay and frustration all round…and this is deemed ‘progress’. How can a bail application be handled for example without the necessary information to hand?

At least until sufficient technology is made available to the CPS and its agents, all this will do is further bring the Criminal Justice System into disrepute as it’s made to look idiotic and stupid in the eyes of the defendants and the outside world. Once again, I suspect that the idea (which isn’t inherently bad) just was not thought through properly at the coalface. Sad, but true…

25 comments:

  1. Or is a trial / pilot to understand the challenges / problems / issues before eventually rolling out to all.

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  2. Do they really not have enough tablets to go around and a way for anyone to access the files they need from a central repository? What century is the CPS living in?

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  3. Replies
    1. I've heard that there is something called wif-fi, but it has yet to be discovered by the CPS.

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    2. In fairness Jag, WiFi has yet to be discovered by the Courts!! I think this is to prevent those naughty JPs being tempted to access the internet during court sittings because obviously we are childlike beings who cannot follow simple instructions like ooh I don't know...perhaps 'don't access the internet during sittings'

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    3. Like this chap?

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2097582/Debasish-Majumder-Court-clerk-caught-watching-pornography-rape-trial-judge.html

      Or, from across the giant drain ...

      http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/13755447-418/will-county-judge-watched-porn-on-his-court-computer-investigation-alleges.html

      Note that not even "content filtering" stopped the learned judge.

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  4. "....Once again, I suspect that the idea (which isn’t inherently bad) just was not thought through properly at the coalface. Sad, but true….."

    Unfortunately, the people at the coalface probably weren't asked what was actually required (or if they were, there was a sharp intake of breath at the likely cost implications). Many years ago, as a trainee work study engineer, I was told that the best way to improve any process was to start by asking the people who actually did the job - they always know, but are rarely asked for their opinion.

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    1. Anon @ 10.25 That is what I meant. I attach no blame to those actually trying to make things work!! I have absolutely no doubt that the people who really matter were not consulted.

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    2. I worked in the public sector for more than 20 years. We went through several IT "upgrades" where new systems came in promising to be the answer too all of our ills. They all failed for exactly the reason you quote - no one asked the end-users what they wanted. Sure, the stats for the Ministers/top-brass were collected but not in a format that actually meant anything without hours of manual manipulation. In addition, we had over a thousand "workrounds" to get the system to actually do what WE wanted it to do day-to-day!! Plus la change ..............

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    3. In a lifetime of computing, I never found any company that asked the end users for their opinions. Systems were just made live with little or no documentation or training. It was assumed the users just knew how to use it indistinctly. The most common mistake was when the developers made the interface screens on huge monitors and when it rolled out the users had to scroll the screens due to their monitors being much smaller and the screens had not been programmed to adjust to differing monitor sizes.

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    4. "I have absolutely no doubt that the people who really matter were not consulted."

      Not necessarily true. There is a long and honourable history of asking for views within the MoJ.

      I think therefore that it is entirely possible that they were indeed consulted ; and that, as happens with magisterial consultations, their views were then totally ignored.

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  5. I must admit to being confused here. The files are already electronic, everyone has a tablet computer and presumably there is a wireless network (it is 2012 after all). Why can't employee #2 just view a copy of the papers on their tablet?

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  6. Government departments are notoriously cautious about who can see their documentation. Without knowing the facts I can only guess, but I am certain that the network (if any) is secure, so unless you know the password you have no chance of being able to access the documentation and that's always assuming, as was mentioned above, that there is Wi Fi in the courthouse and that the tablets are actually Wi-Fi enabled. The whole thing is a nightmare and all because it wasn't properly thought through in the first place.

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  7. @anonymous13:25. No, our court is not wifi enabled and there are no plans (despite a forthcoming capital expenditure) to enable it. The magistrates would like ti so that the many hours they waste sitting about waiting for work/interpreters/whatever could be put to better use

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  8. Yep.s Secure, encrypted and tied to the particular machine once it's downloaded I believe.

    The pad probably blows up if someone else handles it!

    It's a nightmare just transferring cases to another prosecutor who HAS a laptop, let alone anyone else.

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  9. Oh dear. I should probably leave well alone from this subject...

    Tablets are a benefit to some prosecutors but it depends on how you use them and whether you try to embrace the technology. Tablets will be even more of a benefit when broadband is installed in courts. And that is not entirely down to CPS. Quite how the problem with agents is to be resolved I don't know. I still await that answer from management on that one having raised it sometimeago...

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  10. Uncanny. I had to re-check when this was posted to ensure that it really was before this morning when a scenario remarkably similar to that described unfolded here in Blankshire. On second thoughts, it was probably occurring simultaneously up and down the land.

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  11. All too true BS. Yesterday in the court in which I was sitting.

    Delayed start as the CPS Prosecutor was told to go to a court miles away from where he should have been. Not his fault but we could do nothing until he arrived.

    Three morning trials listed. Two went away as witnesses for the CPS failed to arrive, which was probably a good thing as the prosecutor had no papers and no laptop. He was an agency prosecutor. What happened to the "no more agency people in order to save money" initiative?

    Request from a defence solicitor to remove a trial from the list for the following Monday. Why? Because the direction previously given by the court to provide initial disclosure and CCTV evidence had not been carried out. It couldn't be passed over by the prosecutor yesterday because of course he had no file.

    The defence had asked for it to be listed on the basis that they were pretty sure what they should have received would not have been forthcoming. How right they were! A check by the PLO revealed it had been sent by the police to the CPS on 5th November. We vacated the trial but kept it in the list for a case management hearing next week in the confident belief that the direction given yesterday to provide it would also not be complied with.

    Magistrates started on a big training exercise a few years ago to avoid delays. Now we are cracking down on anything that wastes time, and watching the professionals waste the time instead.

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  12. Sadly, no WiFi is totally secure. There is software out there which will crack most passwords. Would you want your documents edited by one of your customers? Maybe allowing two tablets to be connected by an ethernet cable would be OK.

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  13. Of course we also must not forget that no court users (including Magistrates, defence advocates and CPS) are allowed to plug anything into HMCTS plugs because the phone/pad/life support system (delete as applicable) has not been PAT tested!!

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  14. Any electronic documentation of this nature kept in an editable format is the most appalling breach of any sort of data security. The usual way to keep documents that are at all contentious, or that need to be beyond any form of corruption is as a scanned PDF image.

    I agree that no Wi-Fi (or indeed any sort of radio signal) is totally secure, something that many mobile phone users would do well to appreciate!

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    1. Most files can be edited, even those that show up as "read only" in a word processor. Using read-only media (like a closed DvD) can make things read-only.

      If you wish to ensure files on writeable media are not tampered with, they should be "digitally signed". And that requires key management, and it requires the signature to be checked when evidence is presented. Government IT security likely to be done properly, do you think?

      Ironically, paper files in some ways provide better security.

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  15. Just for the record in view of the above - the electronic versions of the files on the tablets are PDFs.

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  16. It all sounds ok on paper but in practice is something different. Firstly, the weight of these tables the poor prosecuter is required to hold is too much and they can't stand there for long. Secondly they can only read from one page at a time- fine in the straightforward cases but less so in anything complicated. Also, if when a CPS chap is on their feet the usher on anyone else can't figure out where the file is , or for that matter take it elsewhere, unless there are other CPS'ers about your stuck.

    I do think technology can be used usefully but it is not a one size fits all which has always been a problem for the hierachy of the CPS.

    Rather than computers if there was a bit more freedom given to prosecutors on the ground to make sensible decisions and a practical approach to prosecuting then we might see more improvement than the electronic age will ever bring.

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  17. The comments on this subject largely miss the point.

    It is of course possible for prosecutors to download ALL the files for ALL courtrooms for that day. The CPS Senior Manager in charge of criminal justice reform gave an assurance about this in the Law Society Gazette in february of this year.

    The fact is that locally, Chief Crown Prosecutors and their assistants don't want this type of flexibility because in this world of reduced staffing and resources, they would ratyher a prosecutor returns to the office to help review files than assist other courts in this way. They don't care if the court which remains sits until midnight so long as they can release a staff member.

    If this resulted in better progress of files, then we could perhaps sympathise to some degree. In reality, it just assists to further reduce the staff numbers, meaning that no improvement in throughput or quality of file review is realised.

    It's auite a cynical position on behalf of the CPS, and an example of how resourcing difficulties are driving CJS agencies into a 'silo' mentality, no matter how much the powers that be protest otherwise.

    Expect a similar outlook as HMCTS pushes through further legal staff reductions and the next round of court closures (coming soon).

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