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The quiet revolution that could transform lives

Most people can't afford a transcript from their own trial even when it's the only thing that could prove their innocence. We need to move beyond the status quo.

 

Overturning wrongful convictions can rely on efficient and affordable court transcription services. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ivan Bandura. Some rights reserved.

For many people, campaigning to change the legal system conjures up images of high profile cases in the Supreme Court and photo opportunities on the steps of the Court of Appeal. Such public moments are important achievements for activists trying to bring about change in the way the law operates. However, they are not the only place where revolutions can happen.

Behind the scenes there are a whole range of processes and procedures that unobtrusively take place every day which, if left unchecked and unchanged, allow inequalities to persist.

The transcription company quoted her £6,000 for the transcript. In the time it took her to scrape together the money, the original recording was destroyed. 

Embracing change across the system

The legal profession generally is beginning to understand the role new technology can have in eliminating inefficiencies. Lawyers are increasingly comfortable with e-discovery  the process of identifying electronic evidence for a case, and document automation  in which a smart piece of software automatically populates forms from information provided by clients.

And there is much excitement about the potential of online courts. It is easy to understand why. They have the potential to streamline certain simple cases, freeing up time and resources, and offering a more efficient experience. However, lost in the excitement are the many, far more easily achievable changes that can be made to the processes and systems that deliver the administration of justice. Updating these does not rely on the computer literacy of vulnerable individuals, or the irreversible selling off of valuable assets, such as court buildings. 

By taking care of seemingly mundane, administrative tasks, services can free up the experts’ time to focus on the things that really need their attention. This is something that has yet to be embraced so enthusiastically by the judiciary and the court system.

Take the production of court transcriptions. Not something that anyone, not even most lawyers, gives much thought to. And yet, it presents an incredible opportunity for behind-the-scenes change that has the potential to profoundly improve the justice system.

In my work at the Centre for Criminal Appeals we saw many clients for whom the transcript of the court hearing was a pivotal document. Mark (not his real name) was just 17 when he was convicted of joint enterprise murder. He is legally blind, and played no role in the fatal attack by two of his acquaintances that led to his conviction. His mother immediately began to fight for an appeal. She struggled to find a lawyer to take the case on. In the process, the original solicitors lost Mark’s case file. The transcript became the only potential record of what had happened in his case. The transcription company quoted her £6,000 for the transcript. In the time it took her to scrape together the money, the original recording was destroyed. 

A client serving 34 years for attempted murder was quoted £20,000 for the trial transcript.

Understanding the status quo

Currently, the Ministry of Justice contracts with private providers of transcription once every few years. The resulting service is relatively and inconsistently expensive and inefficient and too often results in poor quality transcripts with gaps and inaccuracies. The process has changed very little over the years. It still involves hard copy request forms and CDs being couriered around the country to teams of typists who laboriously hand type everything.

The intellectual property for the transcripts sits with the private providers, as do the recordings. Many of these audio files languish in disparate storage units gathering dust until they are destroyed seven years later.

Transcripts in this country can cost thousands of pounds to access. A client of the Centre for Criminal Appeals serving 34 years for attempted murder was quoted £20,000 for the trial transcript. There is little barrier to accessing them for those who have money - commercial clients regularly pay for their own stenographer to come to court and create a daily record of proceedings for them. Legal publishers commission transcripts of the judge’s summing up in major cases for their document libraries. These are available to those who can pay for a subscription.

And yet, these arrangements preclude most normal people from being able to access the transcript of their own court hearing, even where it is an essential document for their case.

As a result of seeing the impact of these arrangements, I teamed up with a lawyer and a developer to create a more efficient, more cost effective alternative which takes advantage of recent advances in technology. Just: Transcription is speech-to-text tool that automates the creation of court transcripts and spoken legal advice records to promote more equal access. We bid during the most recent Ministry of Justice procurement rounds for one of the new transcript contracts. The process presented no real opportunity for change to the status quo, and as a result, the contracts have all been awarded to the same small group of private for-profit companies and the inequality of access continues.

Understanding the patterns and trends that would emerge were such rich qualitative data managed coherently would offer incredible and unprecedented insight into what is happening inside courts.

Considering the opportunity cost

One of the most striking aspects of this situation, however, is not just that barriers to accessing court documents are adding to delays and expense to the public purse. There is a huge opportunity cost in not having better systems in place for capturing and analysing the information that is held within and among these transcripts. Understanding the patterns and trends that would emerge were such rich qualitative data managed coherently would offer incredible and unprecedented insight into what is happening inside courts. There is little doubt that if the Ministry of Justice had this level of awareness about what is going on, it would have a wealth of evidence-based new ideas about improvements that could be made.

For an institution on the scale of the justice system, achieving these kinds of changes requires a certain degree of culture change. Outside the system itself, however, there are many individuals and organisations with the skills and experience necessary to support this, and a real willingness to help. Much of the technology that would be required already exists, and has been proven in other settings. Together, such change is well within reach.

It is easy to be attracted by the big ideas. The exciting, high profile initiatives, like online courts, no doubt have a role to play. And yet chances are being lost to improve the way the justice system administers itself. This is not a matter of mere bureaucracy. What is at stake are the fundamental principles of our world-renowned legal system - its fairness and equality. Technology is irrefutably part of the justice of the future - now is the time to seize all the opportunities it offers, and make them work for everyone.

About the author

Rachael Mpashi-Marx is Director of Just: a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses technology to create tools to facilitate access to Justice.


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