I’d finally wrestled control of my apoplexy outbreaks whilst enjoying the Two Fingers To 50 Tour (see previous blogs). I felt chilled. I was easing myself back into work. Surely nothing could now screw up my new found equilibrium and good humour.
But come on, this is the criminal justice system we’re talking about: the poor relation part of the welfare state which the current Government appear to be hell-bent on dismantling, with seemingly no one doing anything to stop them.
It’s a cunning plan. Using their most incompetent department, the Ministry of Justice, the Government have set about starving it of any funds which might actually enable the system to work properly for ordinary members of the public who might, you know, need to access or deal with being dragged into the maelstrom of the justice system. But at the same time as imposing those prison camp conditions on the department – buoyed by the knowledge that a disinterested media either (i) won’t notice or (ii) will just print stories about ‘fat cat lawyers’ if they do – the Government and its civil servants have also decided to try to digitise the system in one fell swoop, knowing full well that their lack of investment in the self-same system will grind the whole juggernaut to a halt within days.
Actually, I’m not sure even They expected the wheels to fall off that quickly.
My post-holiday relaxation came to a grinding halt within hours of going back to work, when a memo was sent round by the MOJ about the functioning – or perhaps that should be ‘non functioning’ – of their secure CJSM email system. Now bearing in mind that the MOJ have been blithely promising that we’ll all be in the digital dream age within weeks, you’d have thought that someone might have checked whether the secure email system on which every lawyer and other participant has to be registered in order to communicate, receive papers, etc, could handle the inevitable increase in traffic. But no, of course not – this is the MOJ!
Instead we all received an email overnight which read:
“The Ministry of Justice would like to apologise to CJSM users accessing the service through the CJSM website for the current poor performance of the service, There has been a growth in usage of the service over the pas few months beyond what was expected and over the last couple of months demand has outstripped the capacity of the service.
Please be assured that we are taking steps to remedy the situation. We have plans to provide:
1) a short term solution to increase capacity – this should be in place within the next 2 months
2) a medium term plan to significantly increase capacity
3) a longer term solution to replace the existing service with a completely new service – this is expected to be in place within 18 months.
In the meantime we would encourage you to use the POP3 version of the service which will allow you to receive your CJSM email into your normal email client e.g. Outlook, Thunderbird, MacMail, etc. Instructions on how to do this can be obtained from the CJSM Helpdesk on 0870 0108535 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apologies again for the poor service you have been receiving and thank you for your understanding.
The MOJ CJSM team”
Not that we hadn’t already noticed that THE SYSTEM TAKES AN HOUR TO UPLOAD A ONE-PAGE DOCUMENT AND APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN DESIGNED BY THE FLINTSTONES!
Of course, one might have thought/hoped that the MOJ would have put in place extra capacity in the system before running headlong into the new digital system. But that would require a degree of foresight, planning and funding which is entirely absent from this department of Government at all levels. Not to mention that having a CJSM account is meant to be an entirely secure way of transferring confidential documents safely. So doesn’t telling you to punt it through your Hotmail account instead rather defeat the object?
And how the “CJSM Helpdesk” can justify making hapless users call a premium rate phone number for assistance is frankly beyond a joke.
The CJSM is barely up and running again now, and we’re all just waiting for another inevitable crash.
In the meantime, still full of post-Tour bonhomie, I ventured out to a Crown Court in the Las Vegas of the South East, where I was due to conduct a PTPH. Electronically, doncha know? Beware the Ides of March!
Now, regular readers of this blog will recall a previous rant about these hearings (see “Does Your Client Plead Guilty, Very Guilty Or Extremely Guilty?”), but before you even get to that stage you need to grapple with the vagaries of the Digital Case Management System. Perhaps more accurately described as the Downright Crappy Management System.
This is the central hub in the ether to which all the case papers and forms are meant to be uploaded. To which all professional parties to the particular case are meant to have access (along with the court), to be able to read documents, make notes on forms, all that jazz. So far, so straightforward, you might think. And you would be completely and utterly mistaken.
This being the MOJ and the court service, the system has seemingly been designed by persons who have never actually had to conduct a court hearing, or a criminal case, themselves. If any judges who actually used to be criminal practitioners have had a hand in the design and workings of this maze of impenetrable useless jargon, they should be ashamed of themselves. It would have helped if practitioners at the coalface had been asked for their input in designing such a system. But of course, no one would be thinking about us bewigged serfs who actually have to work with the feckin’ thing…
The timetable is meant to ensure that before the actual day of the hearing, the CPS and Defence have completed a form on which both have entered details of what their case is (though in the case of the CPS, despite the burden of proof being on them, that doesn’t seem to stretch to them being obliged to actually disclose the evidence on which their case is based), thus to enable the Defendant to enter a plea at the PTPH and, if required, the judge to set a trial date and make sensible directions in the hope that the parties won’t actually have to keep schlepping back and forth to court in the interim.
If only it actually worked that way.
I sat through several PTPHs before mine was finally ready to be called. I had, finally, managed to access the PTPH form myself. Though not the indictment, which is only one of the most important documents at a PTPH hearing, obviously. I could see it, but I couldn’t tweak it, which was not very handy considering I was prosecuting.
This time, the CPS had actually managed to provide me with access to the system and had filled in their parts of the form too. Sadly, the two Defence counsel had not managed to do the same. One of them had been unable to access or operate the system, and the other had not even been ‘invited’ onto the system by their instructing solicitors – yes, the system operates like some sort of perverse Tinder dating service where a cyber ‘come hither’ is issued to the lucky parties. A hearing which used to take 10-15 minutes when conducted with a paper form stretched to 40 minutes in the new digital revolution.
And the problems weren’t limited to the case I was in. Every other PTPH was beset with catastrophe. Almost no advocate had got to grips with the system, which is hardly surprising because we’ve had no formal training offered other than a few desultory courses outside court hours (unpaid) when plainly we might have other things to do. (I’m betting that MOJ and court staff and judges have had courses paid for, within office hours – and probably their computer equipment paid for as well, where we’ve of course all had to fund our own.)
The system itself is also exceptionally clunky to operate. Instead of being able to simply open a document and do something with it or to it, the system features multiple requirements to upload, download, unload, offload, re-load, pre-load and backload in your caseload, before you get to the motherlode. Time wasted? A shitload.
So what was meant to be three short hearings taking between 10am to 10.30am lasted pretty much all morning and into the afternoon as well. Good thinking, MOJ!
In next week’s gripping instalment: the MOJ decides that all criminal trials will operate remotely, with Defendants appearing as holograms, juries replaced by algorithms, and judges passing sentence from home in their pyjamas. All court buildings will be sold off and court rooms moved to prefabricated warehouse premises on out of town industrial estates. This is the criminal justice system in all its majesty, as imagined by the MOJ.*
It’s all going swimmingly!
(*Christ on a bike, I shouldn’t actually be giving them ideas…)