By | 3rd July 2013

One hundred and sixty million.

Occasionally, I find that, when following the news a fraction more closely than normal, I discover what might be described as coincidences.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed the figure of 160 million cropping up on more than one occasion. It is not a figure like a dozen which is often bandied about when the speaker means any number between about six and twenty. It is far too big and far too specific for that. It is certainly a nice round figure but it is not one which you readily pull out of the recesses of your mind when you are stuck for a figure to describe something gi-normous.

The first instance I want to draw to your attention is really two in one. A recent headline in The Law Society Gazette had it that “Ministers find £160 million for Wi-Fi transformation of justice

Well, I wish I could find £160 million, just like that! Would that it were so easy!

And what is it for, this suddenly available sum of £160 million? According to the Gazette, it is “to fulfil ambitious plans to make courtrooms fully digital by 2016, ending the criminal justice system’s ‘outdated’ reliance on paper.”

Now that sounds exciting! And that is not all! I am told that a Crown Court jury trial pilot is to be conducted shortly in Croydon Crown Court under the direction of HH Judge Tanzer and Prof Cheryl Thomas. I shall certainly watch that with interest but in the meantime you may also be interested in a link to the Justice Minister’s announcement “New Court Presentation and Collaboration Software allowing prosecution, defence, and judiciary to navigate complex Crown court cases with ease.”

But then, glee turns to disappointment! On closer examination, the money is only for the criminal justice system. Nothing wrong with improving the criminal justice system but, disappointingly,there is nothing about the civil system. With oligarchs and others beating a path to the doors of the courts in London to argue their cases in the Rolls Building and elsewhere, surely now is the time for some of the money which has been “found” to fund a little investment in technology there too. This would allow the Government to introduce higher court fees particularly if what was on offer was a paperless system with all the efficiencies that would bring with it.

It would be churlish, however, not to welcome the plan which includes:

  • Installing Wi-Fi in the majority of 500 courts so the prosecution, defence, judiciary and court staff can access all necessary documents;
  • Digital evidence screens to enable the defence and prosecution to present evidence, including CCTV and other video footage, digitally;
  • New court presentation and collaboration software allowing prosecution, defence and judiciary to work on cases more easily; and
  • New funding for IT to increase digital workings and reduce the use of paper in the system by the police and judicial system.

Why is it, though, that the idea does not enthral? Is it because of previously disastrous initiatives with Government backed digital initiatives? Is it because of the previous failure of the electronic filing system in the Rolls Building or is it because Justice Minister, Damian Green, justified the expense by saying that

“Every year the courts and Crown Prosecution Service use roughly 160 million sheets of paper. Stacked up this would be the same as 15 Mount Snowdons – literally mountains of paper.”

There is that figure again! Coincidence, or has it just been made up?

I am not sure of the answer, but tucked away in the same issue of the Gazette was just a crumb of civil comfort in the report that

Exempting mandatory costs budgeting for claims in excess of £2m may be ‘unnecessary and inappropriate’, a newly established sub-group of the Civil Procedure Rule committee has suggested.”

The disgraceful last minute exemption of claims over £2m from the Jackson reforms earlier this year is to be looked at by a newly formed sub committee headed by Mr Justice Coulson with the full backing of Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and Sir Stephen Richards, deputy head of civil justice.

A glimmer of hope that sense will now prevail, I hope.

However, I have concluded that no hope exists of reforming the ever burgeoning EU budget. In a report over the weekend, it seems that a children’s colouring book funded by the EU (yes, that’s right, a taxpayer funded colouring book) called Mr and Mrs MEP revealed that in the EU bureaucracy it takes four people to post a letter.

You could not make it up! No one would believe you if you did!!

But that is not all. Part of the report on how children can learn about the European Parliament by colouring in pictures of Mr and Mrs MEP highlighted the fact that each one of the 754 MEPs has an annual staffing allowance of £220,000 at a cost to the taxpayer of (approximately) £160 million per annum!

This just has to be a coincidence but it is the third time the figure has appeared in official news reports in as many days. In an ideal world, I could see the allowance paid to MEPs being used to fund the changes announced by the Justice Minister instead of being wasted on colouring books which, apart from being a huge waste of public money, only serve to show how much money the EU wastes every minute of the day.

No wonder its accounts have not been signed off for years, but that is, of course, another story!

In the meantime, let’s hope the money “found” by the UK Government, actually results in something useful.