Pointing the way to the future: how technology is going to change justice

As part of CSW’s Digital Transformation special edition, we asked sector experts to share their insight on how a broad range of near-term advances in technology will transform the way public services are delivered, and we will be sharing their thoughts all this week. In this first entry, Tom Read the chief digital and information officer at the Ministry of Justice, looks at the opportunities in the sector

Photo: PA

By Tom Read

30 Mar 2020

How are digital technologies currently used in your sector?

The justice system in the UK traces its roots back more than 800 years, with King Henry II opening the first commoners’ courts in 1178, and the first state prison opening in 1816. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that digital technologies have quickly become an integral part of the modern justice system during the past decade.

Citizens can now apply for things like legal aid, a lasting power of attorney, and help with the costs of visiting people in prison online. It is still early days though: the MoJ offers around 224 services to the public, but fewer than 50% are digital by default.

What is the potential for digital to transform services and what challenges could this solve? 

One of our priorities is to ensure that justice is available to everyone in the country, not just to those wealthy enough to afford legal help. Making services that are simple to use, written in plain English, and available through smartphones helps to reach people who might otherwise be missed.

The opportunities for digital transformation in the prison and probation service are equally huge. When people leave prison, they are often unprepared for life outside and have been cut off from societal changes. We are looking at ways of using digital channels to help people rehabilitate themselves while inside, focusing on education and keeping contact with their families.

What will be the key factors in facilitating this transformation?

Funding is obviously key to everything we are trying to do. Banks and other private sector businesses can dedicate up to 20% of their staff to digital transformation, whereas in government it tends to be significantly lower.

We cannot just beg for more and more money from the Treasury though, we need to get much better at explaining to the business the economic benefits of digital transformation. Back in 2013, GDS used the example of booking a driving test costing £6.62 by post, £4.11 by telephone, but just £0.22 online. Across the justice system, we should expect a similar scale of savings.

Away from money, we also need strong political support as much of our work can be of interest to the public. Digital transformation in prisons can seem like a soft approach if the outcomes are not well understood, and this requires political buy-in.

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