The Common Platform is a key part of the wider £1bn digital transformation of the courts system, including the civil courts. The Lord Chief Justice no less has said the “introduction and eventual roll-out of the Common Platform to all our criminal courts is vital. We are assured by HMCTS that it will come good; and it needs to because there is no alternative.”
WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION?
In January 2020 Early adopter (EA) areas had been confirmed: 11 magistrates courts serving Croydon, Derby, Guildford, Newcastle, Chester, Bristol and Swansea Crown Courts.
It was envisaged that this would mean end to end testing involving a completion in CC and in MC, summary only and Either Way Offence scenarios as well as indictable only offences.
Then between April and June 2020 the Programme would be evaluated over 3 months before national roll out later in 2020.
Since then it has been introduced to more courts, but as we all know it has not been introduced nationally.
The DCS would however persist for the time being until fully replaced by the CP version.
What little feedback I have had from users from both the defence and prosecution as well as court staff has highlighted real problems with the Common Platform in both the Magistrates and Crown Courts.
Some problems are no more than teething problems – for example we will have to get used to periodically changing our passwords as this is a pretty routine security requirement for any online system which people can access and change things.
Another is how access will be granted to advocates; we have made clear that the current position – that only the instructed solicitor can grant access to anyone else – is unworkable and we have been told this is being addressed.
Other issues are more significant and fundamental.
They can be summarised firstly as difficulty accessing a case at all. Under the old system, anything you do get comes from the prosecution, once they knew who the defence solicitor was. Now it goes on to the CP and then one needs to put in a number of bits of data which were entered by the police on charging. The problem was that unless one had all the correct data – including a URN, name and DOB – and it matched what the police had entered it was impossible to get in – and clients typically did not have the URN or the name was misspelt.
The second problem was that often the Court wasn’t able to access the necessary details of the case, or it froze or crashed. Even if they had access the process of entering all the data as the case was being conducted was so cumbersome it considerably slowed things down and the design of the forms is so poor the possibility of making errors was increased.
In August last year the roll put was halted but in meetings with HMCTS we are assured everything was on track and the teething problems were being sorted out. Obviously the Covid pandemic was referenced as causing additional difficulty.
We are now in February 2022 and the programme seems to have stalled.
I attended an online meeting last November with members of the PCS Union arranged by the CBA Chair to discuss the Common Platform. I was taken aback to hear how serious their concerns are and they informed us that the roll out had been halted on the orders of the Senor Presiding Judge because the system was so unreliable. They told us that the SPJ had said that unless the Common Platform could be shown to work properly and continuously for 3 weeks the roll out should not proceed. They said it couldn’t be guaranteed to work properly for 3 hours at a go, so the roll out should not only be halted but the Common Platform should be withdrawn as it was exacerbating delays in the CJS.
They said the issues are two-fold – and both are very serious as I have already described..
- It is full of bugs and so unstable such that it can not be relied upon to either work for a court session or accurately record the results of that session.
- The entire concept is flawed. As advocates we have no idea how the outcome of court hearings are recorded. There is a lot of backroom activity as well as the work of the clerk or legal adviser in court, and the process only works because the clerk or legal adviser does nothave to do everything in real time in court as the hearings progress.
- CP is designed to require the court clerk or legal adviser to do all that in real time – and they say it is simply not feasible. If they work as CP intends it slows court proceedings down.
- For example, they say that Liverpool MC used to be able to process 24 or 25 cases a day; with CP it is down to 8 day!
- There are numerous other complaints and they are contemplating industrial action if CP is not withdrawn from the pilot courts or, at the very least, they are provided with more staff and processes to work alongside it to make up for its deficiencies.
Indeed they balloted their members in November about strike action unless their demands are met; they include
- No new cases input on to Common Platform
- Disclose the feedback from early adopter sites
- Disclose the numbers and details of incidents where incorrect results or issues have impacted on other criminal justice stakeholders
On a turnout of over 57%, 96.3% of members who voted said they would support strike action which shows how bad they think things are.
Recently the Public and Commercial Service Union wrote to the outgoing acting CEO of HMCTS Kevin Sadler calling for the “immediate suspension of the Common Platform due to escalating concerns about the adverse impact of the delivery of justice and the increasing negative impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of those using the CP.” Co-signatories include the Criminal Bar Association, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, NAPO and the POA.
On the 19th January the then HMCTS CEO Kevin Sadler accepted that the dispute with HMCTS staff who bear the burden of working with a system they insist is wholly unfit for its purpose and should be withdrawn before it causes yet more damage must be escalated to the next stage which is Permanent Secretary level; they are still waiting for this to happen.
In October last year the Lord Chief Justice, in a speech to the Legal Wales Conference said
“I am very conscious of the frustrations that have resulted in some of the Magistrates and Crown Courts into which it has been introduced. During August and September, its roll-out was paused to enable issues on system stability and resilience to be dealt with.”
That work continues. But introduction and eventual roll-out of the Common Platform to all our criminal courts is vital. We are assured by HMCTS that it will come good; and it needs to because there is no alternative. Judges and Magistrates continue to be involved through working groups to assist HMCTS. The Senior Presiding Judge and Mr Justice Cobb, who I have asked to perform a coordinating role for the final stages of reform, are in constant contact with the relevant officials in HMCTS to ensure that the Common Platform provides the functionality that is required. The aim is to conclude the roll-out in the Spring of next year.
On 3rd February this year the judiciary were informed that: the roll out of the Common Platform had been paused to allow the HMCTS Crime Programme Team to, I quote, “investigate technical problems and to improve overall system performance.”
The bulletin went on and again, I quote
“No decision has yet been made as to when any further roll-out of CP will resume. This will be taken only when the senior judiciary have analysed the evidence provided by HMCTS.”
Answers to written questions by Shadow Minister Alex Cunningham last March reveal that the CP’s budget has risen to at least £300 million, of which over £230m had been spent; no more recent figures were available.
HMCTS leadership have assured the government that the CP will represent big savings in the CJS so they are pretty heavily committed to it. The last thing the HMCTS leadership – or indeed anyone – wants is for the CP to join the list of overblown IT schemes which have never turned out to be ineffective in operation and have to be dumped. We am presently assured that this will not happen, but we don’t think anyone can give us any guarantees.
So nothing is apparently going to happen in the short term, and certainly the DCS will not be replaced any time soon. HMCTS naturally insist that the CP will come good.
At the Bar we have made it very clear that we will do our very best to help achieve the best outcome for advocates and litigators, but not at any cost. The CP has got to be an improvement on the DCS and we can not sacrifice our ability to be able to work effectively on our cases simply because HMCTS wants to get a piece of software up and running.
I have no issue with HMCTS apparent willingness to listen: they have always been very keen to get feedback from the Bar. I do have serious concerns that the structures are in place to allow for that to happen effectively.
Accordingly the Bar has now, as it were, teamed up with the CPS who, as part of the Civil Service have a closer connection with HMCTS than we do. We are having regular meetings with them to try to collaborate on the design of the DCS replacement. They, as litigators, face four ways; they have to liaise and coordinate with the police who supply the material, with the court as they serve that material, with their advocates – whether their employees or members of the Bar and with the defence litigators on the other side. At the defence Bar we of course want to make sure it works well for contact between us and our instructing solicitors. A good example is how we get access – and transfer access – to cases in which we have been instructed.