Fiona Rutherford Opening Remarks: Modernising Criminal Justice Conference 2024

Welcome to the Modernising Criminal Justice Conference 2024.

As part of my introductory remarks, I want to set the scene for today’s event as well as take advantage of having a wide range of sectors, interests and experience in the room to highlight the opportunities presented by being together for the best part of the day, talking to one another, even if the word networking makes you cringe – the chance to make a link to a person or organisation that might be of interest or support is too good to avoid so I would encourage you to either step into or out of your comfort zone and visit the exhibition stalls, attend a session that might be on an area you don’t know much about, broaden your horizons, ask questions, be curious!

With that said, and the concept of modernisation very much at the forefront of our minds, there is a need to think about the relationship between those working in the private and public sectors when integrating technology into the delivery of criminal justice. Too often in the past, there has been a hands off approach – can the private sector do this cheaply and get it off my desk? When in fact what is required is collaborative and responsible relationships between public and private sectors which put individual rights at the centre of their work together, as they identify need, develop services and tools, and monitor performance of contracted-out public services.

Following my role as a policy director at the Ministry of Justice, I now have the great pleasure of leading an organisation called JUSTICE, and our purpose is ambitious but uncontroversial – to make the UK justice system fairer and within everyone’s reach.

We frequently work with a wide range of experts including policy makers, judges, lawyers, cross-party parliamentarians, technology and data specialists, ministers and most importantly those who have had their personal interests, their lives, the lives of their families and friends deeply affected by the justice system.

The focus of JUSTICE’s new report due to be launched next Tuesday and entitled – Beyond the Blame Game: a responsible and rights-centred approach to government contracting – examines the current situation and proposes a route to putting people and their rights at the heart of the outsourcing of government responsibilities to private sector partners.

The need for changing how we think and deliver outsourcing could not be more urgent because, as the Chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, Marcus Bokkerink, said in a speech he made about foundation models in April, to quote ” …we have a disruptive technology that – perhaps for the first time in the history of innovation – is not disrupting the major incumbents who already hold strong market power in some of today’s most important markets, but instead could end up reinforcing their market power. Aggravating the pre-existing tendency towards concentration.”

This dominant market power that Marcus is referring to not only effects the extent to which the public sector can effectively collaborate with the private, but can also stifle innovation from small or medium size enterprises and from voluntary, community and social enterprises. And I’m aware I’m in a room of people who don’t need convincing that stifling innovation is usually not a good thing.

The task is not, as many of you will know, straight forward and we’re going to have to get good at it fast as the effort to evolve and transform becomes ever more necessary and alluring.

Our criminal justice system is key to our living together well and fairly: it helps set the tone of our streets, affects the strength of our communities, and deeply shapes families. Technology is already starting to transform criminal justice, from virtual hearings to automated transcription and well beyond.

The challenge as I see it is not in the development of technology but in ensuring we harness it to build systems, services and products that treat everyone equitably and is centred around people’s needs and their rights.

I’d like to offer up three simple guiding thoughts, if not principles, to ensure technology changes criminal justice for the better:

Firstly – Accessibility and ongoing support

In 2020 at the start of the pandemic, JUSTICE held what we believe was a world first entirely virtual mock jury trial to assess its feasibility. One of the key lessons this brought home was that users need transparent processes with very clear guidance and expert ongoing support in order to secure their trust. This support must be both technological and social; justice is a collective community process and its human dimension must not be forgotten. Such ‘user experience’ factors are vital to ensure legitimacy and protect people.

Secondly – Data, transparency, and accountability

Without decent data it can be extremely hard to know whether modernisation is making for a fairer system or not, and why. Data is also essential to ensuring technologies do not replicate or amplify current discriminatory thinking, since algorithms fed with discriminatory data tend to yield outputs that reflect or worsen this discrimination.

The transformations occurring in criminal justice are far too impactful and important to get right for policymakers and designers to safely ‘fly blind’ on them.

There is a need for transparency in the tech infrastructure used for justice purposes too. Justice tech requires public transparency just as much as judicial appointments or police training practices do.

Thirdly – We need to learn from what others are doing – look outside of the UK

The pace of technological change means we need to learn lessons fast.

Reliance on private companies for tech solutions will be inevitable, making it essential for public-private relationships to be collaborative and centre people’s rights. We have all seen the results of a hands-off approach to government outsourcing in scandals such as the Brook House immigration detention centre.

For public and private actors to be on the same page, particularly in relation to artificial intelligence, requires clear good practice guidelines and JUSTICE is developing just such a set of principles to help guide developers, users, and practitioners. The challenge for all of us will then be to make those principles reality: to build a tech-enabled justice system in which the rule of law is hardwired into policies, systems and the enabling tech.

The safety, fairness, and functionality of the system that emerges from the current technological revolution will profoundly impact our democracy, our rights, and the quality of all our lives – it already is.

So let’s start today by celebrating the innovations we’re going to hear about, seeking out more but not resting on our laurels when it comes to the fact that technology has the potential to replicate and amplify discrimination and inequalities in the system but equally, has the potential to make justice more efficient, fairer and more transparent, building all important trust and confidence.