Demands for changes to ‘barmy’ rules on digital evidence have government’s ear

by Jeremy

The sheer scale of injustice and deceit in the Post Office Horizon scandal has forced the government to consider fast-tracking changes to the rules on using digital evidence in court. Following a Westminster Hall debate in March, a minister agreed the government would look at the issue and update on progress before and after the summer recess of

Parliament. Westminster Hall debates allow MPs to raise issues and receive a response from a government minister. They force government ministers to the table and put flags in the ground to say, “We are looking at this, we are interested, and we expect to see some action”, according to Darren Jones, Labour MP for Bristol North West, who triggered the debate on digital evidence last month. The Post Office Horizon scandal saw hundreds of people who own and run Post Office branches prosecuted, with some sent to prison based on computer evidence that has since been proved wrong. (See a timeline of Horizon scandal articles since Computer Weekly broke the story in 2009).

Demands for changes to ‘barmy’ rules on digital evidence have government’s ear

The scandal has already seen the most significant group referral of potential miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal. There are calls for changes in how digital evidence is used in court, backed by evidence of its inadequacy.

Before 1999, prosecutors who relied on digital evidence in court had to prove that the computer system had worked as it should. However, the change to the rules that year meant that it is now presumed the computer worked correctly unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary.

Jones said the Westminster Hall debate had a positive outcome, acknowledging action to be taken. “It looks like ministers think there is potential to improve this law more quickly for this calendar year,” he said.

The issue has already been raised with the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee chair, and Computer Weekly understands that this has triggered a process of consideration that will take months. But Jones said he is “not entirely convinced the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has broad enough powers” and that it requires statutory intervention from ministers.

Jones is, however, optimistic that there could be a faster resolution. “The debate led to a helpful discussion with digital minister Matt Warman about what we can do. I don’t know what the answer is about what you replace it with, but I recommended it go to the Law Commission.

“The minister suggested that takes too long, and this needs to be resolved urgently, which is a good answer from a minister in these circumstances because they normally try to bat you off,” he added.

Jones said court rules have failed to keep pace with technological advances. Today, almost every aspect of life and work involves some digital interaction, but there is little understanding of how computers work or why they fail to work correctly at times. The elephant in the room on this point is that the law has not been effectively updated since the late 1990s, which in the context of technology is barmy,” said Jones. “Technology has been transformed in that time, but the rules around digital evidence have not.” He added that while there have been legislative changes around concerns such as data and privacy, there has not been an update on the law on digital evidence

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