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Digitising Justice: Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic

Digitisation will transform the UK’s justice system and put the service users at the core. With the impact of COVID-19, we saw digital working and adoption accelerated across areas of the criminal justice system - but we still have a long way to go.

As lockdown restrictions ease, it is important to look back on 2020, reflect on the challenges the UK Justice System has faced – and continues to face - and highlight where digital enabled the justice system to keep going; but also where it can assist in building back better.

We know the Government’s ambition is to create a justice system which puts the user at the centre, which protects the public and swiftly dispenses justice. To do this, the ambition must centre around delivering digital justice and high-quality rehabilitation programmes. It is important to look at the journey of the user as they move through the criminal justice system; prevention, rehabilitation and breaking the reoffending cycle we see all too frequently.

Our criminal justice service must be quick to respond and flexible, whilst also being transparent. To achieve this, it is important to explore how to best deliver digital transformation, leverage technologies, new initiatives and platforms to better serve and protect communities and to deliver a justice system which is effective and efficient. As we explore opportunities for digital transformation, it’s not just about the user moving through the system but creating a culture and environment where technology and innovation can flourish. The pandemic has shown that digital is no longer just the responsibility of IT. It is about empowering people and equipping them with the digital skills needed to deliver the best services.

Opportunities to drive digital transformation across the criminal justice system from courts and tribunals to prisons and probation services are vast. This paper will explore the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system and how tech can transform services but also answer; how can the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPSS), Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) work better with the tech industry to digitise services?

In January 2021 techUK established a Digital Justice Working Group. The group consists of 31 techUK members, large and small, with commitment from public sector representatives across MoJ, HMPPS, HMCTS, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and academia. Its mission is to champion how digital technologies can transform courts, prisons and probation services, from understanding more about video enabled justice, prevention and rehabilitation to digital skills, inclusion and what better access to data means.

The Working Group focuses on three key areas:

The work has been established due to the clear change in appetite for digital ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic. From court and parole board hearings to virtual social visits and laptops for prisoners, there is a clear interest now for digital services but also how data can be joined up to provide these services in a better way.

The Future of Digital Justice

“In sharp contrast to so much else in this strangest of years, the criminal justice system (CJS) did not pause or stop because of COVID-19. Indeed, it could not” - Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021

COVID-19 came at a time when the UK probation system was undergoing significant reforms. It has put added pressures on our already stretched prison system resource, and impacted our courts and tribunals system resulting in backlogs. Now more than ever, it is clear the vital role technology can play in supporting the justice system in building back better.

What we have seen is COVID-19 acting as a catalyst for digital transformation. Although the cumulative impact on the criminal justice system brought on by COVID-19 is clear and profound, it has yet to be fully felt. The challenge now will be to realise the benefit of a more digitised justice system and maintain this once we fully emerge from lockdown.

It is important now for the tech industry to work closely with partners to make fundamental changes in areas where the pandemic has exposed a need. This could include the challenges we see around interoperability, legacy infrastructure, connectivity or simply moving procedures from paper to digital. Now more than ever, it is essential for MoJ, HMPPS and HMCTS to collaborate with the tech industry to unlock innovation and how digital adoption will transform services, putting the user at the core.

Although the impact of COVID-19 on the Justice system has been with force, we have seen digital adoption accelerated across our courts, prisons and probation services. We saw organisations evolve and adapt to change, embrace new technologies and we have seen multi-agency working at its finest – this enabled by having the right digital infrastructure in place. For example, we saw a move to video hearings, in-cell telephony and virtual visits for prisoners. However, it has also revealed gaps and those areas lagging in their digital adoption.

A report by the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, focusing on the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system, highlights that the issues caused not only have a ripple effect across the whole justice system but could cause considerable damage for years to come. Now is an opportunity to learn. To learn from those areas that have successfully adopted digital technologies, where we have seen an acceleration in digital working and look ahead. Look ahead and explore how digitising justice services can start filling those gaps as we aim to move towards an effective and efficient digitised justice system.

Courts and Tribunals

COVID-19 has necessitated a significant increase in the role of technology in supporting the justice system. We have seen our courts adopt remote hearings where possible, with statistics showing the number of cases heard per day via audio and video technology increased from just under 1000 in the last week of March 2020 to over 3000 by mid-April 2020.

Capita’s Al Murray, Managing Director and Client Partner for Justice, Central Government & Transport highlighted that in March 2020, within days of the nation going into lockdown, the Court of Protection in England conducted the UK’s first “trial by Skype”. Explaining that

“along with the rest of the country, the UK courts faced a slew of unprecedented demands and extreme restrictions. For a justice system that’s traditionally conducted within a designated courtroom, and in person, following stark regulations such as ‘stay at home’ and social distancing recommendations was fraught with difficulty”.

Courts stepped up to the challenge, investing in remote and digital technologies that would enable proceedings to be conducted safely and within the law. According to data issued by HMCTS, by 24th April 2020, 90% of court and tribunal hearings involved audio and video technology. There now must be assurance that this was not just a sticking plaster for the more systemic challenges that still need to be addressed. As we move forward with a more digitally enabled justice system, we must ensure longevity in these changes. Long term investments in digital technology must be made to truly transform the system and serve all citizens.

Whilst digital adoption was accelerated as a result of the pandemic, we were seeing a phased approach from HMCTS as they started to digitise services. One example includes the work with Cloud Gateway as they implemented digital transformation at pace by securely integrating legacy infrastructure and Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. This has resulted in cost savings and operational efficiency leading to a more modern, scalable and responsive justice system.

Find out how HMCTS worked with Cloud Gateway to deliver a more modern, scalable and responsive justice system.

Data, Data, Data

With the introduction of new technology, there is a need to better understand the data, what data these solutions will generate and what to do with the data. Dr Natalie Byrom, from The Legal Education Foundation, highlighted there is “no better moment than now for improving the collection and sharing of data”. Dr Byrom’s report ‘Digital Justice’ highlights the £1 billion courts reform programme creates an unprecedented opportunity for sharing data about the justice system to improve access to justice.

“COVID-19 cannot be an excuse. Rather, the impact of the pandemic on the court service has shone a spotlight on why it is more important than ever to improve the quality of data collection.”

Good data, investment in data governance and addressing fundamental issues around data quality and data standards has never been more important in addressing the backlog. To follow this, we not only need to explore what better access to data means as we introduce new technology but, a question we must consider when exploring a more digitally enabled justice system is how accessible a digital justice system will be for the end user? It has been highlighted the CJS want a justice system which puts the user at the core. However, what considerations are being made for those who are digitally excluded? There is no ‘one size fits all’, and if we are looking for an inclusive and just system, we need to put the end-user at the heart of the system and ensure whatever digital technologies are introduced, are done so with this in mind.

techUK’s Digital Justice working group are engaged with partners across HMCTS and CPS through the ‘Digital Courts, Common Platform and Forensics’ workstream. The workstream’s focus includes what digital adoption means for the user; ensuring the digital changes implemented over the last 18 months are here to stay and, how technology can assist in moving through the backlogs. Another key consideration of the workstream is the focus on data. What is the value of better access to data and how partners can collaborate with industry and a range of sectors to build confidence in data sharing? How can we build public trust in the use of digital technology across courts and tribunals? There is a huge shift to new ways of working and the tech industry value this opportunity to collaborate with justice stakeholders to understand what this means for those moving through the courts.

Prisons

“Providing education and rehabilitation to prisoners should be regarded as a major public priority” - Digital Technology in Prisons, Centre for Social Justice 2020

When the national lockdown was introduced in March 2020, this severely impacted our prison system. We saw prisoners leaving their cells less, non-essential visits cancelled, employment suspended, and education opportunities significantly reduced. Sadly, The Howard League wrote that the “conditions endured were consistent with, or very close to, international definitions of solitary confinement (22 hours or more alone each day)”.

There were clearly lessons learned from the first lockdown and this included what should be done to accelerate the implementation of digital technologies across the prison system to support inmates, staff and daily processes, such as updating prison infrastructure to allow for greater broadband, rolling out in-cell devices for low-risk prisoners or introducing video conferencing technology. You can hear about the value of this technology in a report techUK supported released by the Centre for Social Justice exploring Digital Technology in Prisons.

Access to devices to support rehabilitation programmes is essential. The Commons Education Select Committee was told that learning by inmates had been hamstrung by a requirement for all their studies to be undertaken with pen and paper. Rod Clark, former chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said: “It has been very striking since lockdown just how disadvantaged prison learners have been compared to every other sector in society, where remote, virtual learning has been the absolute bedrock of provision.”

techUK supported the recently published Digital Technology in Prisons Report in which its argued that the installation of broadband technology, secure access for prisoners is necessary and the need for this has been intensified by specific pressures due to the lockdown prison environment. Prisoner access to devices can empower them on their rehabilitation journey, allowing them to upskill in their own time, complete training and education programmes, manage their day to day lives and maintain in contact with family and friends. Unilink Software’s Francis Toye recently said,

“Those prisons that embrace self-service technology for prisoners via kiosks and, more recently, in-cell devices such as laptops and tablets are beginning to deliver rehabilitation programmes direct to prisoners. These courses are tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual including education, health and wellbeing advice and access to appropriate entertainment to alleviate boredom.”

Unilink supports the digital transformation journey in corrections with solutions to support well-being and rehabilitation such as ‘Prisoner Self-Service’. The solution enables prisoners to carry out a variety of requests from purchasing items and scheduling visits to receiving e-messages. It gives offenders the responsibility of controlling their own affairs, increasing accountability which is proven by independent academic research to have a rehabilitative impact. It reduces the administrative burden for staff, freeing them up to spend more time with offenders, which reduces frustration, and increases the mental well-being of both inmates and staff.

As we evaluate the impact of the pandemic on prison estates, and the roll out of technology as a response, should we be reforming our justice system to ensure access to digital tools is central to the reform process? With the release of HMPPS’s Digital, Data and Technology Strategy we see digital adoption ‘front and centre’ in the build of future prisons and modernising of Victorian estates.

“We want services that are fit for the internet era, that meet the expectations of people that use them and work on them, and allow us to better adapt to the need for remote working, learning and relationships” - Jo Farrar, Second Permanent Secretary, MoJ Chief Executive, HMPPS

The vision for 2024 highlights five core objectives:

The final objective here is of great interest as we start to break down silos and understand data flow through the justice system and the journey of the user end to end. Exploring opportunities for interventions and ways for technology to support staff and the user on their rehabilitation journey and broadly their journey through the system is key. How could better access to data, data quality and standards improve this journey?

Striking a balance

The biggest challenge prisons face is striking a balance between security, rehabilitation and efficiency. We have seen how technology has advanced the range and quality of services that citizens can access and it can do the same to facilitate more effective rehabilitative services. Prisons are multi-purposed – to punish those who have been convicted of serious offences, to act as a deterrent and to rehabilitate. If we want to address reoffending rates and cut the cycle of crime, we need to explore where necessary interventions should take place and the power of technology to rehabilitate within prisons whilst keeping security and efficiency in mind.

techUK’s Digital Prisons, Health and Security workstream is aiming to explore exactly this. The group are engaged with HMPPS and MoJ Digital and Technology around the digital vision for prisons and how technology can better support its staff and prisoners. The workstream is collaborating with partners across the prison health tech space and also working to understand the challenges around digitising ‘victorian’ prison estates with issues surrounding connectivity and interoperability being explored. With the introduction of new digital technologies, the group are also working with HMPPS to understand the security implications.

Probation Services

COVID-19 came at a time when probation was in the midst of its second major reform programme. For our probation services, March 2020 included not just the publishing of the Draft Target Operating Model, setting out the proposed future model of probation services in England and Wales after June 2021, but it also saw the nation entering lockdown. For a service that relies heavily on face-to-face contact, significant changes to how services were delivered had to be introduced. On March 24 the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon, Robert Buckland QC MP told the Committee:

“We have moved to an exceptional delivery model. That means we are making sure that priority is placed on offender management and risk supervision. In other words, we are focusing the attention of the probation service on offenders in the community and the way they are monitored. “

So how did technology play a key role in the COVID-19 response? In the first instance we saw face-to-face supervision ‘go digital’ with sessions taking place via phone, skype and messaging for low-risk individuals. Probation services faced a number of challenges from staff levels and issues surrounding the resettlement of prison leavers to backlogs of unpaid work.

Having explored the value of digital technology and better access to data supporting courts and tribunals and prison estates, as we look to digitise probation services, it is important to explore how digital can enhance service delivery whilst preserving the centrality of human relationships between individuals in the criminal justice system and probation officers. It is widely researched the value face-to-face contact has across probation services. It is also important to bear in mind that any technology introduced needs to be done so with appropriate training for both staff and prison leaver. Better access to data and better data quality will help identify training needs and support probation officers in the development of tailored programmes to help prison leavers on their rehabilitation journey to discourage reoffending. Whether this be, for example, support into employment or education opportunities.

Collaboration for prevention

When exploring recidivism, it is important to highlight the value of partnership working, data sharing and the benefits of multi-agency working to support prison leavers. Steven Doggett, Business Development Consultant, Unilink Software highlights how opening out data sources can achieve this with there being a “real need to refresh national systems and open out national data sources between prisons and probation to humanely support and protect those transitioning from custody to the community. Linking up with the DWP and accommodation providers should be a priority for digital services and there are some quick wins there.”

Brendan Swarbrick, Executive Client Director for the Ministry of Justice and Home Office, Sopra Steria also highlights the value of a multi-agency approach to reducing crime and how technology alone won’t prevent crime or reduce reoffending but it is a valuable tool.

“Preventing crime requires collective action, it can’t be tackled by government alone it needs a more joined up approach across central government, police, schools, local authorities, NHS, private sector, charities and other organisations”.

To prevent crime, better support prison leavers and drive down reoffending rates, we must deliver a connected, stable and strong probation system that will focus on recidivism, support victims of crime, keep the public safe whilst also helping those people moving through the probation system to make positive changes in their lives.

Market Engagement

A fantastic example of how the Ministry of Justice is engaging with the tech industry is through the launch of the Prison Leavers Innovation Challenge (PLIC), the digital and technological strand of the Prison Leavers Project. A £20 million innovation programme aiming to develop solutions to reduce reoffending rates. The project aims to work with and support prison leavers across four key areas – health and wellbeing, community and relationships, employment and skills, and day of release. We are seeing the Ministry of Justice reaching out to industry and partners to understand the issues surrounding reoffending, and the technological solutions as a response. Solutions which are novel, scalable and can deliver meaningful impact. This project highlights the importance of collaboration for prevention and the value of technology to address the challenges surrounding recidivism.

techUK’s Education, Skills, Prevention and Rehabilitation workstream are working closely with representatives from MoJ’s Prison Leavers Project team on the PLIC but also the role of the tech industry to support the wider aims of the Prison Leavers Project, the role of technology and data to enhance probation services and, how the wider adoption of digital technology across prison estates and probation services can specifically support prison leavers as they re-enter society; a society more reliant on technology than ever before. With the adoption of technology, the group is also exploring how education capabilities are scaled for both prisoners and staff.

Conclusion

Secure access to data and technology can deliver the right services for users by improving efficiencies and supporting rehabilitation. A digitally enabled end-to-end justice system will not just reduce manual processes and inefficiencies but also support a joined-up user experience that can guide the citizen from start to finish. Underpinning this vision, there is a need for;

  • access to the right data at the right time to make informed decisions and improve efficiencies
  • better access to and sharing of data to support the user journey through the justice system
  • improving data quality and data standards as a foundation to deliver justice more efficiently.

The justice system must reform, and data must be at the heart of it. Better access to data for courts, prisons and probation services is crucial as we start looking ahead at the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear, we have seen digital adoption accelerated across the criminal justice system, but we still have a long way to go. With the impact of COVID-19, shifting demands, fewer resources and constrained finances; change must happen from better data sharing to support staff and understanding the user journey to standardising the use of new technologies. Investment and adoption of new technologies will improve efficiencies and will result in better joined up services across the criminal justice system.

Now is an opportunity for MoJ, HMPPS, HMCTS and CPS to collaborate with industry to unlock innovation and transform services through the adoption of digital technology. There has never been a better time to come together to future gaze the ‘art of the possible’ but also work together to understand the existing challenges and barriers to digital transformation. techUK is that platform for collaboration and we encourage industry and justice stakeholders to reach out.