A Social Enterprise, A Ministry of Justice and A Failed Attempt at Innovation

Rachael Mpashi-Marx, Director of Just:, recounts a frustrating experience with the Ministry of Justice for England and Wales which illustrates the wider issue, very likely relevant to the demise of the Retchtwijzer in The Netherlands, of conflicting cultures between innovators and government departments. 

Perhaps we were naive to take them at their word, or maybe we are just unreasonably impatient for change. But when we got the chance to put our idea to modernise transcriptions into practice, we jumped at the chance. We are familiar with the Ministry of Justice’s ambitions to modernise justice through technology and innovation. We were spurred on by the messages in their initiatives – Transforming our Justice System, the Good Law project, the Digital Case System rolled out in Crown Courts.

Sophie Walker, at the time Chief Executive of the Centre for Criminal Appeals and an experienced criminal solicitor, had just been quoted £20,000 for the transcript for one of our miscarriage of justice client’s attempted murder trial. That is not the kind of expenditure most clients can afford, let alone a vulnerable prisoner. It didn’t make sense to us that in a world where many of us regularly talk to Siri, Alexa or Cortana quite happily, transcripts are still being couriered around the country on CD and typed up by hand.

Rather than get frustrated, we thought why not try and create the change we wanted to see?

We talked it through with a developer friend of ours. He said most of what we need already exists. If we could bring it together in the right way, we could create a system that would automatically transcribe court hearings, and much more.

So together we founded a social enterprise and got creative.

We started building a prototype, incorporating cutting edge data transcription software. We began to construct an online platform, secure enough to store sensitive information. We conducted user testing to understand better how the more and less tech-savvy among our potential users would engage with our product.

And then we did something even more daring – we bid for a contract to undertake official transcription in courts and tribunals across the country. It was no small undertaking. The documentation involved would account for a small woodland if it were all printed out. A number of long nights were spent wading through the security requirements and confidentiality undertakings, not to mention the jargon. But we submitted our bid in time for the deadline in September 2016.

What we proposed is a system that utilises speech-to-text technology to automatically transcribe hearings and meetings from audio to written documents. It cuts out the need for teams of typists, improves the levels of accuracy and the speed of turnaround. And it also allows us to go much further.

Our open data approach means we can use transcription meta-data to understand what is actually happening in courtrooms in a completely unprecedented way. In too many cases, transcripts are only made when someone pays the private company for them. Otherwise, the information languishes, scattered in boxes and isolated on servers around the country. By coordinating these documents we will have a unique view into what is actually happening in the justice system.

But the Ministry of Justice did not even read our vision for providing subsidised access to transcripts for legal aid and socially excluded litigants. They did not see that we were proposing to return the intellectual property to the State. They do not know about the innovative service we are creating.

We were rejected on the grounds of our financial standing as an organisation. As an organisation, we are very young, that is true. But we had secured the backing of a social enterprise investment fund that would have put us in a better financial position than some of the organisations previously holding a contract.

Taking on a new venture, with untried technology is a highly risky proposition for an organisation that must, to some extent, be institutionally risk averse.

However, the Ministry of Justice operates in an all or nothing manner, despite the Government’s rhetoric about innovation and support for SMEs and new entrants. We had no alternative but to bid for a contract that would have meant we would be producing transcripts for one sixth of the country. We would prefer to trial the technology with the Ministry of Justice in a small scale test. This would allow us to develop a system with them, so that it worked for them, and for disenfranchised litigants. But, despite recognition from some internally about the benefits of such an approach, there is currently no option to do so.

The majority of the companies that succeeded in securing a contract previously held one. They are embarking on another four years with little improvement to the service, which is acknowledged as too inefficient, inaccurate and expensive. Many are part of large, multi-national corporations, and have a mandate to make a profit. Yet poor access to and quality of these documents is currently a significant contribution to the inefficiencies in our court system.

Whether Just:’s speech-to-text technology is the answer or not, this experience brought into sharp focus the distance there is between the ambitions of the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS and what is happening in reality. Transcripts are a tiny part of the system, but they offer a window into the wider situation. As the MoJ embarks on its ambitious programme of transformation, there are many exciting and innovative initiatives available to them through collaboration and partnership. We are eager to be involved, and hope the MoJ will take up the opportunity to engage more fully with the start-up community. The potential we have together offers truly exciting prospects for access to justice for everyone.

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