The systemic courts backlog exacerbated by the pandemic and the 25 per cent austerity-era cut to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget have been well documented – but now the British legal system faces another major problem: troubles with a new courts IT system, which is causing key information and decisions about cases to go missing or change entirely.
Legal professionals have raised a number of concerns surrounding the Common Platform IT system – a cloud-based portal meant to allow judges, lawyers, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), police authorities and other bodies involved in legal processes to access and log case information and outcomes on a single platform.
“What our members are reporting is very worrying,” an organiser at the PCS union, which represents court staff, told Spotlight. “There’s been a massive increase of issues in the system, [including] reports of losses of work and functionality issues. I don’t think these are teething problems – this is a system that essentially doesn’t work.”
Legal professionals – speaking out often anonymously, for fear of losing their jobs – have reported a range of faults and glitches. Less serious issues include the system not being able to register cases with people named Christopher (staff have resorted to using ‘Christoph’ as a workaround), while more serious problems see the case information users have put on to Common Platform disappear. Even final rulings on criminal cases that have been logged on the system have been removed or changed, staff report.
In one example of the system breaking down, an individual working in the judicial system was not notified by Common Platform that they hadn’t done a particular task, which meant that an order to release someone in custody failed to reach a particular prison. That resulted in the detained person not being released immediately and spending several days more in prison than they should have, according to reports.
“More broadly, you would think that HMCTS [Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service] would be wise to just what it’s done to morale,” the PCS union organiser said, noting that the system has caused extreme stress and anxiety among its members, with some taking time off work sick. “Not only are record numbers of staff leaving [the profession], but [HMCTS is] also in a situation now where morale is absolutely on the floor – and they’re not really responding to it at all.”
Over £300m has been spent on the digital case management system, which was first launched in 2020. It is currently used in around 60 per cent of courts in England and Wales, with a further expansion planned for early next year.
Common Platform was made to streamline and speed up the judicial process, and replace the antiquated methods that saw court staff, the CPS and police use up to five different software systems to process cases.
Alan Woodward, a forensic computing expert who has previously advised the government on similar infrastructure projects, told Spotlight that it was difficult to exchange information between parties on the old system, “and that was one of the big wins that Common Platform was supposed to solve”.
Woodward puts most of the problems with Common Platform down to the “agile” development approach its designers took. Instead of building the entire product and rigorously testing it before release, systems developed with an agile approach sees developers work on and release aspects of software as it’s ready (making services available sooner) and make any necessary changes upon user feedback.
“The issue with doing that is that you inevitably release systems that are not complete,” said Woodward.
When approached for comment by Spotlight, an HMCTS spokesperson said: “Common Platform is fundamental to modernising the court system – replacing out-of-date systems not fit for purpose and freeing up court staff for the work they can add most value to.
“We will continue to work closely with staff to support them through this transition and want to thank all the judges, court staff and others who have contributed to its design and implementation.”
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Many of the revelations about Common Platform come from Justice on Trial, a documentary broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 recently. In it, legal professionals revealed that, as a group, they have had to devise over 100 workarounds to deal with Common Platform’s faults, with more being discovered every week. (The MoJ says the number is closer to 14.)
Woodward pointed out that legal professionals often have to use both the old system and the malfunctioning Common Platform for cases that began prior to the new software being introduced, which is still a large percentage of their work due to the backlog of cases in British courts. (Once all of the old cases are cleared – which will likely take years – Common Platform is expected to become the default system used for all new cases.) People will not only not trust the new system if it continues to be unfit for purpose, Woodward argued, “but begin to resent it because it represents extra work”.
The problems with Common Platform are set against a wider context of disruption and delays in the judicial system. Cuts to legal aid and pay have led criminal barristers – through the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) – to go on an indefinite and uninterrupted strike.
That is also set against a mammoth backlog of cases across both the magistrates (344,261 outstanding cases as of March 2022) and crown courts (58,653 outstanding cases), which were stockpiled prior to the pandemic, and later exacerbated by the delays it caused.
Many working in the British justice system believe it is in a state of crisis. The members of the PCS union whose courts use Common Platform were due to start a week-long strike on 10 September over the new system, but it was postponed due to the death of the Queen.
“This [includes] a group of members that are quite ‘small c’ conservative – these are not a group of members that will raise their hand and walk out for a strike at the drop of a hat,” said the PCS union organiser. “These are people whose job has an element of vocation about it… they’re seeing that this is having an impact on the delivery of justice and I think that’s the real gut punch here.
“This Common Platform – it’s an assault on our livelihood,” the organiser added. “It’s about saying: ‘With this system, justice can’t be done.’”