It’s the end of an era as paperwork in court becomes a thing of the past

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Barristers carrying bundles of files tied together by pink ribbon is a common sight at Portsmouth Crown Court.

But all that is set to change as the Wessex Crown Prosecution Service moves into the 21st century.

The traditional dark pink ribbon, which gave rise to the term ‘red tape’, is going to be replaced as the CPS abandons paper in favour of iPad-style devices.

Nick Hawkins, chief crown prosecutor for the CPS in Wessex, says the scheme will eventually be extended to judges, jurors and defence barristers, meaning courts can operate without paper.

He explains: ‘By April 2012 Wessex Crown Prosecution Service, which covers Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, will become almost entirely paperless and the CPS nationally will be working almost fully digitally across England and Wales.

‘This dramatic move shows our commitment to cut down massively on bureaucracy and ineffective ways of working.

‘Working digitally means that the whole criminal justice process can be speeded up substantially, resulting in shorter trials, with our victims and witnesses being informed about their cases much quicker as information is sent electronically straight after the court hearing without the need for the file to be sent back to the office.’

The electronic case file will be e-mailed to the police, court and defence counsel, rather than printing off three copies.

As well as speeding up the process, the idea is this will reduce the risk of papers being lost.

Prosecutors in Portsmouth’s crown court and magistrates’ court will begin to use the new equipment next month.

Nick says: ‘At court, prosecutors are going to prosecute cases from a tablet device.

‘In crown court cases, evidence will be presented electronically to the judge and defence counsel. Jurors, instead of reading a bundle of paper, will share a TV screen showing the evidence being presented.’

He adds: ‘All these changes are already happening here in Wessex. Locally we have been working very closely with our criminal justice partners, such as the courts in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the police, to meet our 2012 deadline.

‘We have also received support from judges, magistrates and defence lawyers who can see the benefits of digital working.

‘It will speed up substantially the process for victims and witnesses who are at the heart of what we do.’

It is also hoped that police officers, who will be able to send evidence electronically, will be freed from paperwork.

Nick explains: ‘Ultimately these changes are about working in a modern and efficient way so that we can continue to provide a high quality prosecution service on behalf of our communities.

‘This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, it’s about making it a more efficient process.’

He says the CPS would not have to find extra money for new equipment because it would be provided by the company they already have a contract with.

‘It’s within our budget,’ he adds.

‘We have a long-term partnership with our supplier. We have negotiated another five-year contract with them and they are responsible for upgrading the software and the hardware.

‘It’s replacing like-for-like in that every prosecutor has their own piece of IT – for many that’s a PC at a desk.

‘So we are effectively trading in an old model for a new one, just like when you lease a car.’

The government’s police and justice minister, Nick Herbert, has visited Wessex CPS’s head office in Eastleigh to see the progress made so far on going digital.

The MP for Arundel and South Downs says: ‘I think because of budget constraints agencies are required to be more efficient and this is a huge opportunity to drive out costs.

‘The criminal justice system is behind. There’s the old-fashioned image of lawyers carrying huge bundles of papers - this is a step into the 21st century.’

He also believes that, together with police officers being able to give evidence via video-link, the changes will save police time.

‘It will free police officers’ time which is what the public want. We won’t have police officers wasting time photocopying papers.

‘Obviously the system has to be secure, information can’t just be sent on a normal e-mail. It must be a secure transmission, but there are lots of other walks of life where e-mail is secure. That’s perfectly possible.

‘I was impressed by Wessex CPS’s commitment to deliver what is a complicated project to a demanding timetable.

‘It really is a huge step forward.’

Support is not universal

The changes have met some resistance from defence firms. In a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the 30 largest criminal firms, accounting for more than 10 per cent of the criminal legal aid budget, gave notice that they will not take part in the scheme until concerns over costs and workability have been addressed.

The CPS says replacing all paper documents with electronic communications will save money and Nick Hawkins, chief crown prosecutor for the CPS in Wessex, says defence lawyers in Portsmouth have reacted positively to the plans.

But some say not enough progress has been made to ensure that information shared digitally is accessible to them and their clients.

They also want grants to cover their costs.

Concerns include the lack of wireless access and power points in courts, the difficulty of taking computers and mobile communication devices into prisons and police cells, and problems over the use of secure e-mail and systems through which e-mails are routed.

Solicitors say that the change will simply transfer costs from the CPS to the defence.

Max Hill QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, says: ‘The criminal Bar has engaged with the Crown Prosecution Service over many months to understand and assist with its plans for paperless trials.

‘There are many problems to overcome, both financial and technological. We are open to modernising to produce a more cost-effective trial system, but publicly-funded barristers have been subjected to deep cuts to their remuneration for all areas of work.

‘Our primary focus must be the delivery of high quality representation in the face of these significant challenges. There is no money to spare on new equipment for paper-free trials.’

He adds: ‘If the CPS can deliver its plans efficiently and at no cost to hard-pressed defence barristers and solicitors, so be it.

‘We predict that there will be significant teething problems.

‘There are limits to the delivery of paper-free justice, and the CPS will need to demonstrate flexibility as criminal courts adjust. This will not be easy, but we are helping where we can.’

How the new paperless system will work

Police forces will send information digitally to the Crown Prosecution Service on e-mail.

The CPS will then send the information electronically to the court and defence via secure e-mail. Hard copy files will disappear and the electronic case file will become the master copy in the CPS.

The case file will be electronically bundled into one document, which will be e-mailed to all parties involved.

At court, prosecutors will prosecute cases from tablet devices.

In crown court cases, evidence will be presented electronically to the judge and defence counsel.