All great changes are preceded by chaos.
February 27, 2023 – Deepak Chopra

I have had a week of contrasts. First, I had an email from something called ‘Common Platform’. This is apparently some brilliant IT system for bringing all parts of a criminal case together, from the police through to the judge, and including both the Magistrates Courts and the Crown Court. Just those words alone would fill any practitioner, judge or court official with dread. The state’s engagement with technology has always been a rather fragile process and the general rule seems to be: the more money that is spent on it, the greater the likely disaster.

I joined Common Platform about two years ago. Every six months it tells me that my account has been suspended because I have not logged in. I have not logged in for the simple reason that I have never had a case that was on the Common Platform, like most of my colleagues. Hetty Briar-Pitt, who is more used to equine sites, managed to register much more easily than the rest of us and never received the depressing emails. Unfortunately, Common Platform is also a name used by another organisation which has nothing to do with the law. The only surprise is why she never noticed.

I suppose I could remember to log-in, but, unlike Hetty’s site, this one has the most boring ‘Home’ page ever. Two other pages offered are ‘Your Account’ and ‘Your Services’ – each is exactly the same page as ‘Home’ with the heading ‘Beta. This a new service. Your feedback will help us to improve it.’ From a brief survey of the Google hits, it does not look as if the feedback is very complimentary. I wanted to ask the simple questions ‘what?’, ‘why?’ and ‘when?’ but felt that these had probably already been covered.

So, change that so far has involved no change. I also paid a trip to the Court of Appeal last week to join other colleagues to present an appeal that involved two judges from the courts below with three indictments and a myriad of rather tangled points. We all met again, counsel for the Appellants and counsel for the Respondents, as if we were a college reunion and faced the three judges headed by Lord Justice Hardcastle. He is a very patient and painstaking judge with a generally dry manner, punctuated by some genuinely amusing one-liners. His colleagues to the left were Mrs Justice Choudri, a terrifying opponent in the criminal courts before she rose to the Bench, and Mr Justice Hornby-Hudson whose career had been in the more balmy waters of mercantile credit and charterparties. I think he saw his work in the Criminal Division in the same way that the rest of us might enjoy an episode of Poirot or Inspector Frost. He is, however, ferociously bright and once he has unlocked the particular concept in the criminal law on which the appeal depends, you can expect a laser beam searing through your argument.

Since COVID, there is now a large screen from which the defendants watch proceedings in the comfort of their prison. They look startled to begin with, then interested, followed by bored. Then they wriggle and rock backwards and forwards, finally falling asleep. The barristers go through a more choreographed version of the same thing. The temperature in the courtroom was about 30 degrees for some reason and with the wooden furniture, panelled walls, and the gentle buzz of submissions we were all drifting into the arms of Morpheus. One of my colleagues, Kyle Corson, was in the middle of an interminable submission when Hardcastle said: ‘could we not reduce this to saying that the judge erred in admitting the roadside confession?’ ‘Yes,’ said Kyle, sounding as though he meant ‘Gosh, yes!’ And when I rose with the same submission, which I prefaced with ‘and now for something completely different’, the LJ managed a wintry smile and the other two put their heads down with smirks.

This was a digital appeal. Everything was on my iPad. No rows of law reports for the judges or the sight of barristers trying to balance lever-arch files on the narrow pews. This was great change and yet, in that strange atmosphere of the old courts in the Royal Courts of Justice, rather soothing and timeless. My client had his sentences reduced, slightly. Outside in the old corridor, I bade goodbye to his brother. ‘What difference does three years make when you’re serving 27 years minimum?’ he asked. Simultaneously, Kyle walked past and said, ‘Great result, William!’ That both statements were true is another unchanging feature.