The Tribunals Service was busy announcing the ways in which social security appeals are to go online, including video hearings and live streaming of appeals, at the same time as the Ministry of Justice’s antiquated IT system was out of action for days. Documents have now emerged warning of the danger of a major data breach.
Thousands of court cases across England had to be postponed after the Ministry of Justice’s computer systems crashed for days last week.
Courts could not send emails, evidence could not be accessed and jurors could not be called as IT systems run by Atos and Microsoft crashed.
Documents obtained by the Guardian show that the Ministry of Justice has known for some time how outdated and unreliable its systems are.
The confidential review of employment tribunal IT systems warns:
“Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.”
“We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”
Yet, at the same time as their current systems are at risk of being breached, the Tribunals Service has announced its plans to move as much as possible of the appeals system online, with video hearings and even live-streaming hearings.
According to a report just released by the Senior President of Tribunals, Tribunals Judicial Ways of Working, tribunals will switch to a system of ‘continuous online resolution’ which will see all the case papers uploaded to servers where all the parties involved can access them without the need for hard copies.
‘Digitally excluded’ claimants will be given support through a service known as ‘assisted digital’ which is currently being piloted.
All hearings will be recorded as the main ‘record of proceedings’ and the Tribunals Service is trying to “identify a recording solution for video hearings and continuous online resolution and to identify which hearings are to remain face to face and open and which are to be digitally open.”
The report goes on to say that:
- New video technology will be robust and reliable. Judges will not be expected to conduct hearings with unsuitable technology.
- Anyone appearing before a court or Tribunal must be clearly seen and heard throughout the hearing, as would be the case if they were physically in a hearing room. The video technology should ideally capture the entire person, rather than a head-and-shoulders-only caption.
- Broadband speed, Wi-Fi, and equipment used by those taking part in the hearing must be of a sufficient quality to enable their appearance without screen freezing or the signal dropping out.
- HMCTS will set out its practical proposal/s for securing open justice in fully video hearings. It is expected that this will be achieved by a live link from the video hearing to viewing areas in court and Tribunal buildings in which the cases are listed. Access to the proceedings will only be by this means. Members of the public will be supervised in the viewing areas by HMCTS staff.
Continuous online resolution may lead to the DWP admitting defeat earlier in some cases.
And video appeals may make tribunals more accessible for some claimants.
But since 2010 the Ministry of Justice has faced the deepest cuts of any government department and it is clear that its IT systems are in need of massive reinvestment. Until that happens, claimants may well be concerned at just how secure their data will be when it is all moved online.