IT collapse creates chaos in English courts

By on 27/01/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
A picture of modernity: English courts suffered major disruption in last week's IT failure (Image courtesy: StevovoB/Pixabay).

Major IT network issues caused huge disruption across courts in England last week as computers and phone lines went down, leaving lawyers and judges unable to work and causing cases to be adjourned.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, justice minister Lucy Frazer QC told MPs the problems had been caused by an “infrastructure failure in our suppliers’ data centre.”

A statement from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said work was continuing with main suppliers Atos and Microsoft to restore services. The root cause had not been identified by Friday, but the government ruled out a cyber attack and assured people that no data had been lost. 

It also countered reports that people had been wrongfully imprisoned or freed due to the technical problems. “The issues have caused frustration and inconvenience for our staff and users. But they have not led to detaining defendants or freeing criminals unlawfully”, the statement said.

The final straw

Lawyers union the Criminal Bar Association told The Independent that the outage had left the court system “on its knees”.  The group’s chairman, Chris Henley QC, said: “Prolonged IT failures do a disservice to the victims of crime and their families who may have already suffered the costs of delays from an already overstretched, chronically underfunded, broken criminal justice system.”

The new IT problems come on the back of a “separate and unrelated” issue last week, which affected users of the secure criminal justice email system. 

The chain of recent IT failures have raised concerns about the government’s ability to successfully implement its £1.2bn ($1.6bn) digital transformation programme for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS).

Sweeping ambitions

The ambitious reform programme was first launched in 2016, and includes the introduction of a new computer system – The Common Platform – which allows information to be shared between the courts, police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The digital overhaul also includes digitisation of paper records, centralising customer services, and introducing virtual hearings. The MoJ hopes to cut staff numbers by 5,000 and reduce the number of cases held in physical court rooms by 2.4m per year by 2023.

Richard Atkins QC, chair of the Bar Council Member Services Board, told The Independent that the IT failure shows how vulnerable the courts system is becoming to technological problems. 

“Whilst HMCTS is moving forward with its programme of online justice, these problems would suggest that more investment in the basics is needed first. We cannot have a justice system that comes to a shuddering halt the moment the IT does not work properly”, he said.

Don’t blame the new kit

The outage lasted several days but, according to the government, most MoJ staff had access to their IT accounts by Wednesday 23 January, with further progress being made by the end of Thursday night.

The MoJ said the network issues were “unrelated to [the] £1 billion modernisation of the courts system.

“The disruption in recent days has been to the existing MoJ network. The Common Platform system is still in testing phase so, contrary to earlier reports, has not been affected”, the statement said.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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