The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a team, who may or may not be JPs, but all of whom are interested in the Magistrates' Courts.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Tricky Tech

The criminal justice system is still pretty old-fashioned in its use of technology in the courtroom. Justices' legal advisers almost invariably use handwritten notes, and long running cases soon acquire files of paper several inches thick. The police justifiably complain about the reams of paper they have to complete, and the idea of switching to electronic files is overwhelmingly attractive on grounds of speed efficiency and cost.
But there's a however, of course. There is not the faintest chance of an integrated system to allow use of files by police, CPS, courts, prisons, probation, and the other agencies involved, at least in my judicial lifetime. There are so many horror stories of bungled and catastrophic computerisations in government and the NHS that no politician or civil servant with an eye to his career prospects would even think about another.
The latest problem is the routine omnipresence of very powerful web-enabled small personal gadgets. The trouble with jurors is well known - you simply cannot allow people to do their own research on the law or the defendants in a system that depends on the jury deciding purely on the facts presented in court.
Quite a few magistrates rarely look at their thick folder of guidelines, preferring to use an electronic copy. But there's a problem.
There is case law that forbids JPs to consult the Guidelines before the defendant is convicted. There was a successful appeal based on the defence lawyer's assertion that the sight of a Bench member leafing through his guidelines meant that he had already made up his mind. Perhaps he had, perhaps not, but the appeal was allowed. So when Mr. Winger is tapping away at his iPhone or iPad or netbook or whatever on the bench, how can the advocates know what he's looking at? Human nature being what it is, curiosity will inevitably cause a few people to go beyond just looking up the guidelines into doing a bit of impermissible research.

Here are words of guidance from a very big wig indeed:-

Magistrates may use personal technology to access public and non-sensitive material in court. This includes documents such as Sentencing Council publications, protocols, guidance documents and the Judicial College Bench Books.
However, it is not permitted for magistrates to store or access sensitive material on their personal technology. This includes documents given a protective marking by administrators (such as “protect”, “restricted” or “confidential”), and any material containing details of a case or personal information. Magistrates may not make notes of cases on personal technology. Even if everything typed is subsequently deleted, the information is still accessible for some time and so presents a security risk.

It's not news that the high-ups are terrified of losing sensitive data, but this guidance still fails to address the issue that we must decide cases on the evidence before us, and we should follow our clerk's advice as to the law. If we do so, we cannot be criticised. But if the retiring room becomes like an internet cafe with JPs tapping away to do their own research on the law or, worse, finding out where they have heard of this or that defendant or witness before, it will damage justice.

We will hear much more of this issue before matters settle down - but given the speed of technical advance, perhaps they never will.