Three Lessons for Bringing the Courts System to the Digital Age

04 May 2018

Digital tools are transforming the delivery of justice in the UK, and their success holds valuable lessons, particularly for the developing world. These applications not only save money by reducing overhead and the costs of printing, but also transform the working methods of the justice system and increase efficiency.  This means faster access to justice, more transparency in the justice system, and courts that are accessible for citizens.

Access Partnership hosted a group of judges from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) at their London offices last week, with the facilitation of Strathmore Law School and the support of Microsoft and CaseLines. The purpose of the visit was to familiarise these judges with digital courtroom and justice system applications.  Through two days of presentations, discussions, and site visits, we covered a broad range of digital applications for a courtroom environment from document and case management to virtual presence.

At the UK Supreme Court, for example, early adoption of Microsoft cloud-based tools for internal administration and document management has allowed them to go almost entirely paperless and cut their IT operating costs in half.   In Wood Green Crown Court, to take another example, the Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service-managed CaseLines system allows judges and lawyers to upload and share documents remotely, speeding up court procedures and cutting back on delays and blockages associated with paper-based procedures.  Video-conferencing tools also allow for more efficient and accessible court proceedings when health or family reasons make in-person attendance challenging.

These pioneering courts demonstrate not just the clear benefits of digital justice but also some best practices for cloud implementation.  Some key lessons learned:

1. Don’t think of it as a “pilot”

Thinking of an initial digital transformation project as a “pilot” can actually be an impediment to further progress.   Many think of “pilots” as a temporary test. Instead, they should be treated as just stage one of a larger process of iteration. This can demonstrate immediate gains to users of digital systems, proving their value before expanding projects.  Cloud, with on-demand services and easy scaling, makes that process easier.

2. Meet the needs of users through iteration

No IT system gets it right on the first try. Even the best constructed system will find kinks to work out and user needs which were not considered. Once users start using the system, as well, they will realise ways that it can work better. In more traditional IT systems, based on rigidly procured hardware and licensed software, the system is often be frozen at implementation, a time capsule of what the system designers thought was needed at the time.

Cloud changes everything. It empowers administrators to build better systems and truly focus on the needs of their users. The first day a cloud platform goes live is the start, not the conclusion, of building an effective system.  Platform-as-a-service tools allow for constant tinkering, experimentation, and creation of new features and applications to better serve users.  As users come to understand this, they too learn how to re-think how they use systems and help build better tools that enable true digital transformation.

3. Change management is key to success.

Even those who have a lot to gain from a new system may resist it if they can’t see that value.  Worse, other stakeholders, such as existing IT or administrative staff, may see it as a threat to their jobs.  To address these concerns and execute an effective roll-out, a comprehensive change management plan is indispensable. Administrators need to communicate with judicial system IT users to make them aware and to hear what their concerns may be.  Training must respond to these concerns and empower them to use tools to their advantage. Similarly, IT and support staff need to understand how their roles may be changing in response to new cloud tools and see a path forward to stay productive and fulfilled in their job.

These are just a few of the lessons this group learned from the UK courts.  Access Partnership will continue to work with Strathmore and its partners to explore digital transformation of courts, including through a workshop later this month in Nairobi for justice system professionals.  Look for our white paper in late June exploring digital court applications, what they mean for the delivery of justice, and how to address obstacles that get in the way of digital transformation.

Author: Logan Finucan, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership