|My typical view of the AXON website|
Legal practice, at least contentious legal practice, is all about evidence. One side brings a case by putting to the court and their opponent some evidence that they say proves their case. The other side responds by seeking to exclude, undermine or rebut that evidence, usually with evidence of their own. Exchanging evidence, call it discovery or disclosure as you will, is the all-important key to winning a case. Effective disclosure leads one side to thrown in the towel and give up. Failing to disclose leads to a loss in court, at best, and a wasted costs order at worst.
Since evidence is so important you’d think somebody would have thought up a way to get that evidence to the people who need to see it quickly and efficiently while preserving the security of the information.
I manage it in my firm through the use of encrypted uploads to secure cloud services and software that lets me to email the links to encrypted files that magically decrypt themselves upon receipt. It costs me about £150 a year for the various subscriptions and cloud storage, i.e. it’s pretty cheap. So, I find myself asking again and again, why do government agencies struggle with this issue every day?
Today I was instructed in a case. The police have quite obviously, on their written account, charged the wrong charge. They say they have body-worn video evidence of my client confessing to the crime they should have charged. My immediate thoughts are, first this mistake is so obvious that the prosecutor will change the charge at court; and secondly, maybe the police didn’t make a mistake – perhaps they know the confession was obtained in breach of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Code of Conduct and that the confession is therefore likely to be excluded under section 76 (or even 78) of PACE.
This is important information.
I have asked my client, but he cannot remember what the police said to him. This is common because people in his situation are rarely used to being arrested and everything goes by in a blur so the video footage, which judging by the police report is the key evidence in the case, is essential viewing for me to properly advise him whether he’s in a “you’re screwed throw your hand in” or a “we can win this” situation. How important is the video footage in this case? Let me put it this way, the police report lists that there are no key witnesses to the offence at all, not even police officers who heard the confession. Instead the only evidence listed is the video footage with officers producing it listed as corroborating witnesses.
Years ago, video evidence would be put on a disc (or VHS depending on your age) and handed to us at court where we could watch it and advise our clients. Today though we live in a digital world, which means there are no tapes or papers to hand over. Instead, we get our evidence emailed to us while body worn footage is uploaded to the cloud for us to download.
The company who won the contract to host the footage is called AXON. They are an American company. I don’t know how much AXON charge the UK government, but I have been reliably informed that their system can handle a lot more than just body worn video evidence; however, the UK cannot afford the full suite of services!
There’s just one practical problem with the AXON website – it doesn’t work. I received my papers for my new case late this afternoon and sat down to read them around 9pm. I saw that there was extensive body worn footage, so I did what I always do, headed to AXON’s evidence.com website to try to access it. I’ve done this many times over.
So far, I have managed to retrieve precisely no evidence in any case ever from this system ever.
I was initially unable to register as AXON hadn’t uploaded all the details of all the solicitors who needed access to it. I was told I had to wait because it was President’s Day or the 4th July or the Superdooper Bowl or something that Americans celebrate that we don’t. So, I waited. A few months later and I still hadn’t been added. Eventually, I tried, and I was finally able to register. Since that day I have never been able to log in. I know my password and username are correct though because occasionally the system does tell me my password has expired and lets me change it – it happened this evening.
So, I have a case that appears to depend entirely on the video evidence, but I have no way of accessing it. For once, I don’t think this is a scam by the authorities to increase conviction rates (I’m convinced every legal aid cut is about increasing conviction rates by the way). This time, I really think that the government has failed to understand the technology it is buying. They have bought access to a system that only allows them to (in theory anyway) serve body worn video evidence by secure download, but that is not the majority of the video evidence in criminal courts. What about the CCTV, interviews, ABEs, etc etc? Worse than that, they have engaged the services of a company that does not seem particularly interested in actually providing the service they have been paid (almost certainly far too much) to provide.
The British government has a history of this sort of shambolic technology purchasing. They spend a fortune on secure video-links only for Skype to do it better, as securely and for less. The government’s secure email system for defence solicitors is a mess that has only just been dragged out of the early 1990s – until recently the system was considered too insecure to work with Microsoft Outlook, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for an email system that literally has the word secure in its name.
Here we are then, evidence is the most important part of contested litigation and yet the government simply cannot get their act together to actually serve it in a modern, sensible and secure way.