“A ‘major disruption’ that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos.”
So began a story in The Law Society Gazette on the 22nd of January. The story went on to explain that the Gazette had been told by ‘lawyers on the front line’ that trials had been delayed, jurors had been unable to enrol, and practitioners had been prevented from confirming attendance at court that would enable them to get paid.
Despite not practising myself, I had already picked up on this story from irate lawyers on Twitter, bemoaning problems with court computers, phones (which of course are digital) and email systems. One well-known family lawyer tweeted:
“No diaries, no phones, no email, courts can’t receive documents or fix hearings…really causing problems for judges, court staff, lawyers – and of course litigants and witnesses.”
And another eminent (but anonymous) legal commentator tweeted:
“Imagine the headlines if it were the NHS.
“But it’s only justice, so no one cares.”
Certainly, I don’t recall these problems causing much of a splash in the national media.
And what did the Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) et al have to say? Well, they at least were able to send out emails. I received a series of them, mainly apologising profusely to those who had been affected by what they called “major IT network issues”. “We know”, they said, “how deeply frustrating this has been for our staff and people who use and work across the justice system.” Hmm.
What they didn’t know was what caused the issues, but we were assured that they “were not the result of a cyber attack and there was no loss of data.” I’m not entirely sure that that is reassuring. It seems that their systems were quite capable of going into meltdown on their own, without any outside interference. At least if they had been hacked, that might have provided some excuse.
Whatever the cause, we were informed that:
“As of 25 January, all Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sites are operational with IT network connectivity restored. We are continuing to carefully monitor the situation and will work with individual users where any issues arise.”
Although there was one further word of warning:
“It will take time for all aspects of the service to fully return to normal, as there is a backlog of work created by the disruption.”
Hopefully, the cause of these issues will be found, and steps will be taken to ensure that the same problem will not occur again. It does not, however, inspire confidence. Many were suggesting that the system is not as robust as it should be, as it was acquired “on the cheap”. I don’t know the truth of that allegation, but we all know that government departments generally, and the MoJ and HMCTS in particular, have been subjected to tight budget constraints in recent years, so there may be some truth in it.
Whatever, in a time when much of the justice system is being put online (ostensibly to make it more convenient for users, but in reality primarily as a cost-cutting exercise), incidents such as this do appear to be a warning of things to come. These IT systems have the effect of putting all of the justice eggs in one basket. Whereas in the pre-digital age there was little that could adversely affect the entire justice system, now it seems that it only takes some small software glitch to bring the whole edifice to its knees.
And the victims will not just be lawyers. They will be those who use the system, including family litigants. And it will not just be some small inconvenience, like having to wait around a bit longer at court. It could mean justice seriously delayed, which could be the difference between a successful outcome to a case and an unsuccessful one.
Yes, it’s true that few people seem to care about IT issues in the justice system. But they certainly will care when it is their case that is affected: their divorce settlement that is delayed, or their children that they are unable to see.