13:36, January 23 75 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-23 13:36:04
Courts IT chaos prompts call for compensation and more funding

The computer network collapse that disrupted courts across England and Wales for days has prompted calls for compensation and improved funding for the beleaguered criminal justice system.

The justice minister Lucy Frazer was forced to answer emergency questions in parliament on Wednesday as trials were adjourned because lawyers could not access the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) network.

IT problems at the department began on Wednesday last week when the criminal justice secure email system went down, depriving 75,000 lawyers and staff of communications. Full email service was finally restored earlier this week.

Separately, the MoJ’s main computer network linking lawyers, judges, probation workers and court staff malfunctioned. Cases were delayed, access to the courts’ digital case system denied and jurors could not be enrolled.

Although the successive, computer crashes were unrelated to the MoJ’s £1.2bn court modernisation programme, the chaos acted as a lightning rod for accumulated grievances after years of underfunding. The MoJ has suffered 40% cuts to its budget since 2010, the worst of any Whitehall department.

Ian Kelcey, co-chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said reports were still coming in of problems even though the MoJ promised to restore full service by the end of the day.

“At Sheffield magistrates court, for example,” Kelcey said, “magistrates could not see files on their tablets. Some courts had problems registering jurors. In the Inner London court, access to the digital case system was fading in and out.

“A number of trials were adjourned and some prisons were not notified as quickly as they should have been that they should release defendants on bail. It’s all a symptom of the under-investment in IT over the years.”

Probation staff and those working in the Legal Aid Agency could not log on to computers. Prisons, which are on a different network, were not directly affected.

In the Commons, Frazer apologised for the problems, pledged that services were being restored and told MPs that “criminals have not gone free” due to the breakdown.

“We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full,” she added. Penalty clauses in the contracts with the suppliers could be invoked.

Frazer denied that either financial cuts or a cyber-attack were responsible for the computer meltdown. “This issue was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre,” she said.

The Conservative MP and barrister Anna Soubry MP said: “If we had a better, more fully funded system, there would be proper back-ups and this rumbling problem would have been sorted out a long time ago … The system is now reaching crisis point and funding is primarily a problem.”

Catherine West, the Labour MP for Hornsey, called for compensation for “victims of crime who wait so long to get justice, and to other court users who often give up days of work”.

Several MPs complained that the MoJ’s court closure programme had added to the difficulties facing court users. The Labour MP Andy Slaughter warned that the courts system was in “freefall” and asked Frazer to postpone further closures until “she can guarantee a working service”. She is awaiting the outcome of a consultation.

Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of justice, said: “Solicitors have struggled valiantly to try to work around these problems where possible, and continue to maintain their vital role in ensuring that the justice system functions properly in the public interest.”

The chair of the Bar Council, Richard Atkins QC, said: “After years of underfunding, parts of the court estate and IT systems are in a shocking state. The Treasury must not turn a blind eye any longer. The Ministry of Justice needs more money for investment in our legal system.”

The main MoJ network is run by Microsoft and Atos. Microsoft declined to comment but an Atos spokesman said: “We take our role as a supplier to the MoJ very seriously and continue to work closely with them on this matter. Improvements have been made while we work intensively to resolve the underlying issue.”

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