Tag Archives: ptph

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……

Throw Me A Bone

On Monday I was meant to start a trial. Unfortunately the trial was listed before a Judge who was part heard until Tuesday. Courtrooms and trials are a little like runways and airplanes that are coming in to land – two into one just doesn’t go. 

So we were given a new Judge to start before on Tuesday morning. As it turned out it was Tuesday afternoon as our new Judge also had other cases to deal with. 

This delay is not what this blog is about. But it is important background information. This blog is about Thursday. 

On Thursday I had a PTPH which was very likely to be a guilty plea. That PTPH was listed in the same court building as my trial. It was likely that once the plea had been entered there could be a stand down report and the defendant could have been sentenced there and then. 

The problem was that my jury was not going to be going out until the Friday. The trial took almost exactly three days from opening speech to the jury retiring. Had I even got underway at some point on the Monday I would have been free for my PTPH. 

My clerks and I thought it was a good idea to ask for the PTPH to be moved. Our first port of call was asking for consent from the CPS locally. In this instance it is only polite to ask because we all know it is also pointless. They never agree. 

So we sent a written request to the Court. We thought it polite to ask them. Yet it is also almost as pointless. This Court does not agree either. Even when the reason I cannot do the PTPH is because their listing has caused me the difficulty. All I was asking for was that it be moved from Thursday to the following Monday or Tuesday. 

The Court were prepared to list it at 945. And frankly I took a huge risk and did the case because I was so hacked off that the Court had refused to move it that I was quite prepared to stand my ground when it all went wrong, which, of course, it did. Client arrived at 10 and the case was called on at 1020 with the only thing that saved me from being in a trial and a sentence at the same time was the fact that the lower court had totally cocked up an associated committal for sentence. 

So what are the consequences of intransigent listing policy from both a CPS branch and a Court? Firstly they are financial. The trial that did not get into Court on Monday had already been adjourned through lack of court time previously. So, as I was prosecuting, that equates to one previous mention fee, then a mention fee on the Monday the case wasn’t reached and then a free day on the Wednesday as that was the second day of the trial. 

When the case had previously been adjourned it had been refixed in a slot in my diary. The Court did not like that date so it was relisted and forced in. The nature of the case was such that I had to stick with it so I returned another trial that was listed that Monday. And, as inevitably happens, as I sat around the robing room whilst I had no prospect of getting on, my other trial cracked. 

And, as is also nearly always the way, because my jury only went out on the Friday I had to miss another PTPH in another court centre on the Friday. That was a tad embarrassing because that Court had been accommodating and reasonable and had previously moved my PTPH to a date when I thought I could do it. So someone else had to go along (an appearance which comes out of the fixed fee) and I had to pen an apology. I also had to draft the documents required for the PTPH I was absent from and fill in the form. 

The second consequence is that I ended up almost letting down one solicitor and actually letting down another. I think some Judges believe that work still grows on trees. It does not. Not these days, not in this market. Not being there for things like PTPHs is the sort of thing that can stop solicitors using you, no matter how good they think you are at the job. Gone are the days when I went to court with a fist full of PCMHs. 

The final consequence is that it erodes a little bit more of the goodwill. I know that the CPS will not consent to moving cases of this nature. It is making us all a little less inclined to help when they need it. I know that the Court will not move such cases, even when my non-availability is also their fault. And that makes me more prone to take risks with listings, more likely to keep courts waiting and less likely to add oil to the wheels of the system. 

I have known that the Bar are at the bottom of the pile for a very long time. Our availability should take second place to the efficient running of the judicial system and things like the needs of vulnerable witnesses.  But the efficient running of the system would also, from time to time, benefit from throwing us a bone or two. 

Better case management might benefit from a tiny little bit of sensible management of the players involved. 

Justice is Deaf

It was not long before some wag christened PTPHs “Pressure to Plead Hearings”. My experience of them would suggest the initials may in fact stand for “Problems That Persisted Historically” or “Prosecution Tried, Prosecution Haven’t”. 

Time and time again PTPHs are not in a position to go ahead. The reason? The same as it ever was – an overstretched Prosecution Service have not been able to upload the necessary information to the DCS system. 

Where is my evidence for this? The observations and experience of myself and my colleagues on a daily basis. Recently I have had the PTPH which was adjourned because the vital telephone evidence and the charts which explained the evidence had not been uploaded to the system. There was a valiant attempt to upload it the night before, which in itself encountered a problem as nobody had created an “Exhibits” section for it to be uploaded to. 

The valiant attempt failed. It appears to be a common experience that many documents seem to have been uploaded but in fact just appear as a URL. The PTPH was adjourned. The problem that has persisted historically still persisted – evidence that was prepared and ready was not served on the defence in good time. It is just the method of failed delivery that has changed. 

And “the defendant knows whether he did it or not” was not enough in the case of a multi-layered conspiracy count. 

As I have said before, there is just not sufficient time built into the timetable to provide an overstretched and under resourced CPS to manage the work involved in dealing with these cases. The rigidity built into the timetable is a recipe for wasted hearings. 

Let me give you an example, again from my own experience. The defence and the prosecution are fully engaged. The Prosecution write to the court asking for the PTPH to be delayed as the ABE transcript was not prepared yet and it was needed to prepare the indictment. The transcript would be with them seven days after the PTPH was due to take place, thereafter they needed a little time to consider this, draft the indictment and serve it on the defence. 

The defence, more engaged than Liz Taylor, also wrote to the court to inform them that they fully understood the Prosecution application. What is more, the defence indicated that the defendant would be pleading guilty but could only do so when he knew what he was charged with. The result? The hearing took place on the designated day and was adjourned. A PTPH has to take place within 29 to 35 days. And with a civil service-esque, metronomic rigidity this strict timetable was applied to guarantee inefficiency. 

Oh, and on the day the case was adjourned to for plea, the defendant was produced by videolink (to save time and be efficient) but with insufficient time for the hearing to embrace the sentencing of the defendant, so it was adjourned to a third hearing for him to be produced and, eventually, sentenced. 

This slavish adherence to an arbitrary timetable is RIDICULOUS. And yes, it is so ridiculous I am beginning to get a bit shouty about it. BECAUSE IT SEEMS NOBODY WITH THE POWER TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM LISTENS TO US!!

I was reading the preamble to a police case summary the other day which asks police officers to summarise all the “key evidence” and defines “key evidence” as being that which “establishes every element of the the offence and that the defendant committed the offence with the necessary criminal intent”. If the police are at the stage of writing a case summary they are in possession of evidence capable of establishing the ingredients of the offence. 

It is this key evidence which should be served, not a case summary. How many times have I seen a case summary describe how the defendant has admitted the offence in interview when he has done no such thing? Countless. 

Give me the evidence then give me time to advise. Then give me a listing regime which means I can spend the necessary time considering and advising with the safety of a reasonable prospect that I can do the PTPH and the trial. This will get you early engagement. This will get you early guilty pleas.

Is anyone listening?

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.