Phones disconnected. Computers offline. Probation officers forced to write letters to prisoners by hand. This was the reality of life in England and Wales’ dysfunctional courts system last week, with the Ministry of Justice crippled by its ageing IT system.
Thousands of cases were disrupted across England and Wales as the court service’s main computer network repeatedly crashed. Staff were left in the dark about when defendants were due to appear, which led to prosecutions being adjourned in a number of cases. Phones, computers, printers and emails stopped functioning.
These issues caused a near total breakdown in the functioning of our courts. Laptops were passed around courtrooms, connected to the internet via mobile phone data. In country that has historically made claims to being a world leader in the provision of justice, such total ineptitude is unacceptable.
With the government pushing ahead with its £1.2bn courts modernisation programme, introduced by Chris Grayling in 2014 – in which digitisation is used to justify closures across the country – this breakdown is particularly worrying. Though attempts to keep our justice system up to date with greater use of digital systems and developing technologies are not without merit, this, clearly, is not what is happening.
Instead, last week’s breakdown is indicative of an approach that cuts corners and leaves basic resources underdeveloped. My strong impression from visiting Crown Courts and speaking to staff across the country is that of underpaid workers enduring poor conditions and an IT system that is simply not fit for purpose.
For anyone involved in the justice system, last week’s events are not the first evidence that the government’s reforms are unlikely to succeed. Expensive public consultations on court closures are routinely ignored when citizens make clear they want to keep them local and genuinely accessible. More cuts are expected to staffing numbers and will cause even greater problems, with over 5,000 people predicted to lose their jobs by 2023. It is incredible that these cuts are planned when we have already reached the point where the chair of the Criminal Bar Association has described our courts system as “on its knees”, blaming “savage cuts to the MoJ budget”.
It is clear then that to really understand what has taken place over the last week we need to place these events in a longer history. Our justice system has been mauled by savage cuts which by 2020 will amount to a 40 per cent reduction since 2010. Around a third of our courts have been sold since then, and legal aid has been mercilessly cut.
As is so often the case with the government’s ideological mania to reduce spending, the issue is not only that it hits the most vulnerable hardest and cuts holes in a safety net that this country spent decades developing. It is that it fails on its own terms. Poorly planned measures designed to reduce short-term costs will inevitably lead to long-term problems. Some will be overt, like the systemic failure of an under-resourced IT system. Others will be less obvious but even more profound, as our social fabric is torn by rising inequalities in access to justice.
Last week’s breakdown shone an overdue spotlight on our courts. What we can see is not pretty. These problems are not one-offs. Rather, they are symptomatic of a very deep rot. That decay will not stop once the wifi is back. The Association of District Judges recently called for courts closures to be stopped until “fully functioning IT systems are demonstrated to be up and running successfully”. That is the very least that should happen. Huge sums have been paid to private contractors including Atos and Microsoft to manage systems that are functioning poorly. They too must face close scrutiny.
But for this country to have a truly fair, sustainable and effective courts and tribunals system we must go beyond immediate measures. We need a government that will ensure that any digital upgrade goes hand-in-hand with a genuine commitment to equal access to justice. To do that, we need to face up to the fact that a decent justice system requires long-term planning and proper, sustainable funding.
Yasmin Qureshi is Labour MP for Bolton South East and a shadow justice minister.