Tag Archives: dcs

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It’s okay, I readily accept that the View From the North is invariably a “glass is half full” kinda view. When I got my acronyms a bit scrambled recently, a commentator observed, quite rightly, that CSJM did not stand for Criminal Justice Secure Mail, but could well mean “Can’t Spell, Just Moans” when it came to my blog. If you have not met me, you can rest assured that my moaning written persona entirely reflects my actual personality. Think Jack Dee without the gags. 

My blog is a cheap form of therapy. It allows me to air the things that irk me. Irked is a pretty permanent state for participants in the criminal justice system. My irk-o-meter is frequently off the scale. And today I am going to share with you something that has been irking me for a while now. 

It is that bloody bell thing. 

I should say that I am not reprising my critically acclaimed role as the Hunchback of Notre Dame in the eponymous theatrical production by the Northern Circuit Players. I refer, of course, to CCDCS.

  
It is that little bell. The little bell with the number 100 in a green circle. 

For those of you yet to be initiated into CCDCS Club, this is the method by which you are notified if anything new is added to your cases on the system. 

Now this is a vital function of the system. As the prosecution upload new evidence or the defence serve skeleton arguments in digital form, the participants need to know this has happened. In the days of paper, the evidence or the application would land in your pigeon hole with a letter attached. I had one solicitor so wedded to paper communication that when I sent him a written advice he would immediately send a copy of it back to me with a letter indicating that I had sent him the attached advice. Which was nice but a tad wasteful. 

Now the new document gets uploaded to the system. And it is vital that you are aware of this in order that you may respond. So three cheers for the little bell thing that tells us something new has arrived. 

Unfortunately it is a bell from the W H Auden poem. It is a bell without a clapper. You get no notification that you have a new notification. One would have thought it would have been relatively easy to have an automated email to tell you that something had arrived. 

I am sure you are all shaking your head at my laziness. “Get a grip” you say, “the bell is telling you something is new whenever you log on.” The problem though is that it only informs you that there is something new by the number increasing. So if you log on one day and have 95 notifications, the only way you know there is a new notification is if you recall how many notifications you had last time you logged on. 

I know, I know. This is me just nitpicking, as per. 

But then you click on the bell to see your notifications. And here the problem is magnified. Your notifications are grouped together case by case and the cases are arranged alphabetically.  So all the notifications for the case of Adams appear together, then all the notifications for the case of Brown (I tell you this just in case you don’t understand how the alphabet works). There is nothing to tell you to which case the new notification relates. The notifications are not ordered in terms of newest notification first, which would be the intuitive way to arrange them. 

So you have to use a combination of recalling when you last logged on, when you received the last notification in any case and then scroll through an ever increasing number of notifications trying to spot the date when material has been added. This is particularly tricky when, as I have today, you have leapt from 95 or 96 to 100. I have no idea how many notifications I am looking for. 

Curiously, when I log on to my notifications today (29th April 2016) the list of notifications informs me they are “shown to Friday, April 15, 2016”;

  
which makes little sense. The list shows me cases to which I was invited in February all the way to cases I was invited to this week. It shows notifications that range in date between February and today. I have absolutely no idea what the date shown above relates to. At first, before I realised that the notification system had been designed by a former employee of Bletchley Park, I was misled into thinking the date on this page was reassuring me I had no new notifications. 

So that is the end of my moan. I fail to understand how a system has been designed in such an unhelpful way. And it really is an obstacle to effective working. The parties being notified of new material is essential to an effective execution of our duties. That little green bell is a recipe for disaster. 

And now I have that off my chest, let me bore you for a moment or two about this crazy weather……

Tomorrow Will Be Just Like Today

I have spent some time wandering around a Crown Court today. I have had plenty of time on my hands as the defendant in one of my cases was due at court for 10.30 and was delivered into the building at 3pm because those tasked with bringing him from London decided they could get all the way to Manchester in half an hour. I live seven miles away and I cannot do that, but a prison van can. Give or take five hours. 

My wanderings saw me encounter the “Continous Improvement Hub Room”. I am sure I have mentioned this in blogs previously. And so I should. It is an important thing, the continuing improvement of the CJS. It deserves both a hub and a room. 

I was wondering, as I wandered, if things had improved much since the last time I mentioned the “hub”. A glance at the list told me that four cases were listed to refix their trial date as they had been removed from the list due to “lack of court time”. A further examination of the list told me that EIGHT out of sixteen available courtrooms were not sitting on crime today. Seven of them were just shut up.

Undoubtedly this will due to a lack of money in the budget to pay for part time judges to fill the vacant courtrooms. The only current answer to this predicament is to get more people to plead guilty early in the absence of evidence. Access online to a case summary is to replace access to justice. 

Paperless courts are definitely the future. Which is a good job. As the CPS currently have no means of copying or printing a single document in this particular building at the present moment in time. 

So the list that I looked at was on a TV screen, produced by the first step in modernising the courts, the Xhibit system of publishing lists and recording representation. I could not look at it on the main, huge flatscreen display in the reception to the building as that is covered in paper with a sign that tells us there is a problem with the server that will be fixed some time soon. I think the sign has now been there for the best part of a year. So we all gawp at the covered screen like a certain vintage of Mayans must have looked at their decaying temples and astronomically precise towns whilst, admittedly somewhat improbably, they sang Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”. 

My promenade took me past the cell door, with its post-it-note addition on the bell that invited us to “press hard” because there is a faulty connection. I retired to the robing room to call Llisting. Unfortunately I could not as the internal telephone has been removed. 

So I began once again to circle the building to speak to Listing. And in the same circular fashion I ended up back outside the Continuos Improvement Hub. And in the same spirit I find myself writing exactly the same blog that I have written in the past. 

Will digital working cure all these ills? Not whilst the only papers loaded on to the system is a case summary which does not even mention the names of several people named in the indictment. Will “Better Case Management” cure all the ills? Not whilst defendants know they can put off the evil day to months down the line with a simple “not guilty” plea.

We should be working towards a better criminal justice system. Better case management contributes towards that.  It is far from the answer though, even when all the cherries fall into place in the slot machine of a single list of PTPHs that all plead. This does not mean that everything will suddenly improve. Not when the fabric, the infrastructure is so woefully underfunded. Not when those tasked with preparing the case are so stretched. Not when we fall into thinking that an increase in pleas is a panacea for faulty wiring and a system of private contracts which means that on two consecutive court days I have a defendant produced after several wasted hours without explanation or even a murmur of complaint. 

The system cannot rely on defendants who know whether they have done it or not pleading guilty. It has to be a system which can properly deal with all those defendants who do not. And that includes getting them to court on time, having a judge available to hear their case and a buzzer that gets you access to the cells. 

Those that continue to ignore this should be ready to enter their guilty pleas as the system decays further, for they are the ones who are culpable. 

The Wheels on the Bus

The View from the North is back after an away day down sarf in that there London Town for an appearance in the Court of Appeal. As is invariably the case, I lost. As is also invariably the case, the Court were very patient of my tongue tied attempts to persuade them of my cause. One day I may just give in and beg them a little. 

There was quite a media scrum outside and inside the RCJ. This was not connected with my appearance but that of Ched Evans and his second appeal against conviction. The massed ranks of photographers, cameras and assorted journos served well to bring home how the Criminal Justice System remains embedded in the heart of our nation. Every day matters of great public interest take place within our courtrooms. Every day matters of great human interest take place within our courtrooms, both big and small (the matters of human interest that is, not the courtrooms).

As I was sitting amongst my bewigged learned friends as we trembled before the terrifyingly perceptive court, I was struck by the real efforts being made to drag the CJS towards modernity. All Appellants appeared by videolink. iPads were as common amongst the Bench and Bar as blue notebooks were but a short time ago. Counsel were as likely to have their papers contained within a PDF than a piece of fabric ribbon. 

I say all Appellants appeared by videolink. One did not. He was expected to. It was arranged. The equipment was there and, on this occasion, the equipment was working. Well….. when I say the equipment was there, I mean the equipment was there in the room he was meant to be in. Unfortunately that required him to be moved from one prison that did not have videolink to one that did. But he hadn’t been transferred. This was the first time I had witnessed a case of someone missing a videolink because they had not been put on the bus. 

Now it occurred to me that this represented two truths about modernity within the Criminal Justice System. The first is universal availability. Having the facility to be modern amongst the Gothic grandeur of the RCJ is all well and good, but it does slightly defeat the object if prisoners are having to be transferred so they can be on TV. I appreciate there is still an overall cost saving but if we are going to do it, we should do it well. 

So it is a bit of a nonsense that there are still courts without PCU wifi. It is a plain daft that such a court is operating digital working. You can’t run a train when you haven’t laid the tracks. 

The second thing that this represented was having the technology is all well and good, but it counts for nothing unless we have got the system right. I am yet to be involved in a DCS PTPH which has worked without hitch. Most of the problems have been as a result of the system, rather than the technology. 

Currently the CPS have a maximum of 21 days to upload the papers and that can give the defence seven days to react. I have yet to witness a case whereby the papers have been on the DCS at the time the case was sent to the Crown Court. Now you can peddle as much of “the client knows whether he did it” and “the solicitor was with him in interview so she knows he did it too” as you like but the reality of stretched defence resources and increasing demands on those resources are not conducive to working under such a ridiculous schedule. At the present moment in time there is insufficient time to organise a conference. The powers that be must appreciate that defendants and advocates are not always available to get together at the drop of a hat. 

The “Prosecution” in the guise of CPS and police, will usually have had months to prepare the case. Even they are struggling to adhere to this timetable. I would advocate giving them 28 days from the point of sending to provide sufficient evidence. 

What do I mean by sufficient evidence? I suggest that the rules be changed so that they have to serve sufficient evidence (nothing else) to prove each ingredient of the offences that appear on the indictment. So if it is a drugs case they have to serve the short form scientific report that confirms the class of the drug (and yes, in a recent case that was not there). 

Then the defence should have 28 days after the service of the papers to complete the online PTPH form. Then the PTPH should take place some time after that. Or make it 21 days and 21 days. But give equal amounts of time and provide the system with a sanction if the deadline is missed. 

Giving the defence proper time to prepare and material to consider will only lead to more cases resolving. The question “did you do it?” to a client who I cannot even advise  about whether the prosecution can show what the drug is, is unlikely to crack many cases. Considered advice would do. 

The CBA want your examples of things going wrong. I urge you to send them to Aaron Dolan. Be constructive. Demonstrate to the powers that be that “early guilty pleas” mean pleas before the case gets into the system for trial rather than guilty pleas obtained as quickly as is inhumanely possible. Show them that early defence engagement where responsible professionals can give proper advice will lead to more guilty pleas than any amount of “he knows whether he did it” and increasingly parsimonious credit provisions.

This should not be about saving money on paper or shaving pounds off fees or saving time uploading five statements instead of seven. This should be about convicting those that should be convicted and minimising the inconvenience and stress to those who are innocently caught up in the system. 

Better Case Management needs to be made better. Let us not miss the bus. 

Epic Fail

Being permanently connected to some form of electronic device I monitor social media more keenly than GCHQ. Over the last 48 hours I began to notice people complaining that CJSM, the criminal justice secure email service, was not working. 

Last night we received an email which explained the problem. It opened with this statement:

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.

I am going to let the typo “pas” pass without comment (he says in a passive aggressive way). I am even going to totally ignore the comma followed by a new sentence. 

Let us instead concentrate on the phrase “[t]here has been a growth in usage of the service over the pas[t] few months beyond what was expected and over the last couple of months demand has outstripped the capacity of the service.”

This would seem a reasonable explanation. Save for the fact it is not. The MoJ have been involved intimately in the introduction of Better Case Management and digital working. This requires every participant in the criminal justice system to have a secure email. That means CJSM. So we have been exhorted by….errrr…the MoJ and their partners that we all need a CJSM account as a pre-requisite to use of PCU wifi and access to the case papers online. 

The growth in usage of the service was entirely and utterly predictable. It has been prompted by the actions of the MoJ. 

I am reminded of a teenager who throws a party when their parents go on holiday. They post the invitation to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and are then surprised when it is not just their close friends that turn up but the entire school, seven drug dealers, 567 teenagers from neighbouring towns and a gang of Hells Angels from Holland. 

Actually my friend Brian will chastise me for that analogy because, in this instance, the MoJ have in fact invited the whole school, 567 teenagers and the Dutch biker gang. And then expressed surprise when they all turned up and trashed the house. 

As the Facebook teenager would observe – “epic fail”. 

And this is what worries me about digital working. Not the poor grammar. Not the poor excuse. But the lack of forward thinking that introduces a system of working that the system cannot cope with. 

As fans of Monty Python know, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Yet when you tell everyone to get a CJSM account as pre-requisite to participating in the criminal justice system, you really do have to expect every participant will get a CJSM account. 

The MoJ must do better. Again. 

PTPH Club

The first rule of PTPH Club is “don’t adjourn PTPH Club.”

So today I did my first digital PTPH. It was the first PTPH in the list. It was, it transpired, the first digital PTPH that the Judge had conducted. 

It did not go well. 

Somewhat confusingly my solicitors had been served with a set of papers. And by that I mean actual paper papers. This was something of a fortunate mistake as they had not been invited to the case by the court, so I had not been invited to the case by anyone. 

The defendant had been sent to the Crown Court on three matters. Two of the matters had only been sent by the lower court yesterday. Only one case appeared on the list. So I liaised with the ever helpful staff and who rooted out the new cases and invited me to the party (at 10:32 am, with the list starting at 10:30). 

I had conducted my videolink conference between 10.11 and 10.26.

Undeterred I gave it go. At 10:38 I had reached a dead end. The first problem was one of the digital cupboards was bare. Nothing. Not a digital sausage. No papers had been uploaded to it. The second problem was that the file which contained the PTPH form had been uploaded as a “read only PDF”. This meant I could not add my bit to it, even if I wanted to. 

I told the Judge my difficulties. He tapped away at his laptop and confirmed everything I had told him (which was reassuring, but, as the Judge gave me the times I had been invited etc. it did make me feel like Big Brother was watching me).

So we adjourned for a fortnight. 

These are teething problems. The system itself can work. My principle criticism at the moment is you cannot duplicate and amend documents “live” so they have to be downloaded and uploaded. And users of iPads need to be aware of the limitations of their current PDF viewer. 

I do have reservations about the timing of the PTPH. I understand the theory behind it. I understand the intention that this is going to produce earlier resolution of matters and cut down hearings. It may be better expressed as a hope. I just cannot see it happening. My worry is that we are going to end up with more trials being listed, rather than less. I see a short term hope that less work is going to have to be done by fully preparing less cases is just going to mean more cases are fully prepared that then go on to be trials. 

The PTPH should happen after a lot more work is done. A timetable such as today are obviously not conducive to getting the case resolved. I am not convinced that 28 days is enough either. 

Less haste, more efficiency, to adulterate a well known phrase or saying. And whilst we get over the teething problems, there may be a need to break the first rule of PTPH Club quite a lot.

Going Digital

I embrace technology like an American President with no heed to etiquette embraces Her Majesty. On occasion I embrace the wrong technology, like mini discs instead of MP3s or hard drive DVD players instead of iPads. When I have caught up I like to use technology, so Archbold is no longer carted around in my bag with its tissue paper pages but nestles happily in my iPad, alongside my sentencing guidelines and espisodes of Dr Who. I have a blog, Facebook, Twitter and even Tumblr. I draw the line at Snapchat, which may be a product of my suspicion of people who would want to send pictures that disappear. 

So I welcome the advent of DCS and PCU wifi. This is a huge step forward for the criminal justice system and is a laudable achievement. I reserve judgement on PTPHs until I experience them in all their glory. Yet, in theory, I raise a hypothetical three cheers for the use of technology in our courts. 

And there is the rub. I welcome it in theory. There will be teething problems. It is the responsibility of all to iron out these problems. I worry about being able to take the necessary equipment on prison visits into establishments which currently will not allow me to wear a watch. I wonder how people that do not embrace technology are going to cope.

My greatest fear is the existing infrastructure. The system relies upon technology and the Internet. What if this goes wrong? What are the chances of it going wrong? How frequently could it go wrong sufficiently to cause problems?

When the system is rolled out in all its glory, when it is fully implemented, paper will not exist. Statements, photographs and documents will whizz between Judge, jury and counsel with the same magic that Mike TeeVee whizzed through Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

Is the internet being “down” going to be the new burst pipes? I experience problems with my internet at home. From time to time it disappears and Mrs VFTN and I have to rely upon Victorian ways of passing the evening, like conversation. Is there a Plan B if the internet vanishes due to the provider or equipment failure? (In Court, not in the VFTN household).

Is this a problem worth worrying about? Experience tells us that we do have reason to worry. Past performance is no guarantee of future prosepcts for investments but they are a pretty good indicator for Government IT projects. And it is not a happy history. The familiar tale is an interesting combination of being over-budget and under-resourced at exactly the same time. 

I am currently going about my business in one of my regular haunts. Every morning I log my details on to the Xhibit system against the cases I am doing. This allows the court to know who is who and where they are. It expedites payment. It allows the public to look at screens adorning the building to find out what cases are in the courtroom and where the court are up to in the list.

For the last week or so the screen outside the courtroom has had a piece of paper sellotaped to the front of it. The paper displays which cases are in the list because the technology has gone wrong and we are having to make do. We have gone from paperless to papering over the faults.

Fans or otherwise of Alanis Morrisette will appreciate the irony of this irony. Digital working in the courts could be a wonderful thing. If it goes wrong there could be a lot of empty screens, blank faces and wasted days.