Digital Court


This is the story of my encounter with our justice system. It's a personal post that doesn't necessarily reflect my employers' opinions.

September 2017 - I was standing by a bus stop when I noticed a man playing with his phone while driving. So I snapped a couple of photos of him and his car.

Man playing with phone while driving.

Car with numberplate blurred out.

London's Metropolitan Police have an excellent, mobile friendly, web portal for reporting traffic incidents. www.met.police.uk/roadsafelondon/
I dutifully filled it in. There's no ability to add photos or videos to it though.

A couple of days later I received an email from the police - could I please send them the photos I'd taken?


Email is basically secure enough for this sort of thing, right? So far, so digital.

And then nothing. Not a sausage. I assumed that was the end of the matter.

Fast forward 6 months and I received this letter in the post.
Letter telling me to go to court as a witness
Would I be willing to attend court as a witness? Why yes, yes I would. And this is where my digital journey ended.

I was asked to fill in an attached paper form and post it off. There was no Stamped Addressed Envelope included, so I tried ringing the phone number. After 10 minutes on hold I gave up. So I dropped an email to the named officer. No reply.

A few days before the court date, I tried to look up details of upcoming cases online. They simply don't exist. There's an information dead-zone around local courts. So I rung up. After a mere 15 minutes on hold I was told the case was still on!

I turned up and sauntered through the metal detector. A lovely volunteer from Citizens Advice met me and took me to the waiting room. She checked my name (but not my ID), wrote it on a bit of paper, then disappeared.

She re-appeared a few minutes later. Checked the spelling of my name, checked the details of the case, scribbled them down, then wandered off to her office.

And then reappeared! She'd found the case at last. She read me a copy of their GDPR statement and asked if I was happy to be contacted afterwards. I didn't get an electronic - or paper - copy, but I agreed anyway.

I was shown a picture of the court to help me understand where I would be sitting. I say "picture" - it was a poorly drawn diagram which had be photocopied so many times as to be gloriously indistinct. It was also incorrect; the court I was to be in had a different layout.

I waited and waited and waited. Justice takes time. But there was lots to read in the waiting room.

Posters on the wall, telling victims of crime about their rights.

The prosecutor finally met me. She was sorry for the delay, but the defendant wanted to plead guilty to a lesser offence. His phone had merely fallen off the cradle and I'd caught him as he was putting it back.

"That's not what the photos show," I said.

"Oh? Really? I've only got black and white copies..." And, indeed she had. Somewhere between the Met and the CPS, my statement had been printed out and either scanned or faxed.

I showed her the full-colour and full-resolution photos on my phone.

Detail of a Man playing with phone while driving.
"You can clearly see that he's holding the phone and pinch-zooming it."

Her eyes lit up. "I'm not accepting that behaviour! Wow! You can see it so clearly! I'm going to ask him about that. Are you happy showing the magistrates your phone if they ask?"

I said I was, and she dashed out of the room never to be seen again. Half an hour later, Witness Services collected me. The accused had plead guilty and I was free to go, without the trauma of testifying.

A few days later I rang the court. I wanted to know what the outcome of the case was. The friendly lady at the end of the phone line said "Oooh! I can't tell you that. Because of... errr... data protection?"

Aside - no, GDPR does not give criminals the right to have their sentences kept private.

I rang the next day and got someone competent. The driver was fined £230, had to pay £30 as a victim surcharge, and £250 costs.

Most importantly, he was instantly disqualified from driving.

So, lets recap:

  • Report crime online - excellent!
  • Send evidence via email - good.
  • Request to be a witness via post - annoying.
  • No easy way to reply digitally - inconvenient.
  • Court hearing information not online - bad.
  • Witness check-in all paper-based - disappointing.
  • Evidence not sent digitally - very bad.
  • Court case outcomes not reported online - bad.

The justice system as a whole has to do better at being digital.

5 thoughts on “Digital Court

  1. Back in 1995 I [briefly] worked for a legal publisher in the UK. The Lord Chancellors Department (now defunct) wanted to provide court listings on the Internet. They used UUCP to transfer court listings to each court over POTS, so that the judges would know what cases they were hearing that week. We became a recipient of those listings which were sent as plain text files with lots of white-space formatting. The text was then placed in pre tags in HTML pages, one for each court for each day: so the information was discoverable on the web. That was a long time ago, and I don't think it covered magistrates courts; but surely the services could have progressed a bit since then?

  2. As part of my research I have interviewed a number of crime scene investigators about crime scene photography. They tell me that blurry black and white photocopies of digital prints are routinely produced as 'evidence' in court.

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