Efficient justice: towards a digital courts system

Paul Burns, Head of ICT at the Courts Service of Ireland reflects on the small, yet significant measures spearheading digital transformation in criminal justice.

“The taking of photographs in Irish court proceedings is strictly forbidden. So, I have gone all the way back to 1916 to find this painting by Sir John Lavery, which portrays the trial of Roger Casement in London’s Court of Appeal,” he says, drawing attention to the image (right) which depicts a scene bustling with wigged barristers and stacked paperwork. “The Law Gazette recently published an article which claimed that any lawyer from the modern day would feel perfectly at home in this painting,” adds Burns, suggesting that the legal system has retained many of its traditional and time-honoured customs.

Changing times

“Things have changed to some degree. You rarely see judges wearing the grand white wigs, although barristers are still known to wear them. The most significant changes to the system have been in favour of the defendant: the death penalty has been abolished, along with other archaic punishments,” notes Burns. “As for the paper strewn across the benches, we still see that every day. With the cheapening of paper and photocopying over recent decades, we see more and more paper in the courts,” he continues. “So, this is what a courtroom looks like, and this is what we, as an organisation, deal with.”

Whilst wigs, robes and papers still feature heavily in the courts, the system has witnessed many changes. Indeed, Burns suggests that the most prominent change is represented in the sheer scale of the workload carried out by the Courts Service, drawing attention to the roles played by the District, Supreme, Surrogate and High Courts. “The Court of Appeal is, of course, a recent introduction which came following a successful referendum,” explains Burns. “To give a rough idea of what we do: we have around 160 judges, dealing with over 228,000 cases, with 56-57,000 of those cases involving family law matters. Over 420,000 criminal cases come through the courts each year, with over half of those being road traffic offences”. As Burns suggests, the scale of the Courts Service of Ireland’s workload is extensive.

Such an operation requires an extensive framework of staff, venues and services. “As an organisation, the court service is spread right across the country, with offices and venues in every county. We have 1,025 staff servicing the 160 judges across these offices. There are the famous Forecourts, built in 1796,” he notes, drawing attention to the historical significance of these institutions. “There is also the Green Street Courthouse, which was built around the same time and has hosted several historic trials, including that of Robert Emmet. That court is still used every week,” he says, adding that “the recently-opened Criminal Courts of Justice are some of the most modern court complexes currently seen in Europe”.

The technology of the Courts

Whilst Burns acknowledges that the Courts Service is a traditional and often conservative institution, he suggests that the system is modernising, with a progressive Chief Justice who is keen to embrace the possibilities of technology. “We have video evidence display and video conferencing in many courtrooms. We have digital audio recording of every case, which can only be accessed with the permission of the judge concerned. The production of transcripts can be done remotely with our sophisticated system,” explains Burns. “In relation to video conferencing, it is used extensively with the prison services, who have video booths in several their prisons where a prisoner can appear via video link,” he continues. “With the technology, you could run a virtual trial with only the judge present and all the parties in other locations. That hasn’t been required, and nobody has sought to do it, but the technology is there.”

The use of video technology has been pivotal to the digital transformation of the Courts, according to Burns. Video evidence display is becoming prominent in modern criminal justice, with fraud trials particularly benefiting from the feature. “We have used video evidence display to show complex documents in cases which sometimes went on for months. We understand that the trial saved vast amounts of time since documents weren’t constantly being passed across the benches, which happened previously”. However, the offering of video technology isn’t limited to fraud cases: various practitioners can use it to display pieces of evidence. “Again, the use of these technologies is steadily increasing over time,” he notes. Video technology can be found in courts across Ireland, from Drogheda, Letterkenny and Wexford to Limerick, Waterford and Mullingar.

A digital offering

The digital offering currently presented to the connected citizen is small, yet growing, admits Burns. Online fine payment systems have represented a basic, yet important milestone for the Courts Service, as have several functions built into its website, including a legal diary and an extensive verdict and case information search capability. “The court’s website is used heavily, with three million visits per year. Around one million of our visits come from mobile devices, which is notable given that our website hasn’t been designed for mobile use. The current website is quite dated, and there is a project going on at the minute to revitalise it,” he remarks.

The digital transformation of the judicial system brings with it particular benefits in regard to interacting and engaging with other public bodies. “The verdicts of cases are digitised and sent to the Gardaí, and there are around two million messages of this nature sent every year. This system introduced significant changes on Gardaí time, entering cases and delivering documents,” explains Burns. “We also have interactions with the Revenue Commissioners, and in the insolvency area, our interaction is completely electronic. Information from them comes to us, which is then displayed electronically.”

“In the next week we will be publishing our first online bankruptcy register – it’s not huge, but it is a significant step. It will contain all bankruptcies back until 1922, so I’m sure that will generate a lot of interest,” highlights Burns. “The DoJ are sponsoring a project called the Criminal Justice Hub which will involve ourselves, the Gardaí and the Probation Service having access to data and case outcomes, and where appropriate, details of people involved in those cases,” he adds. “In the case of courts documentation, we are very anxious to move toward electronic filing and electronic availability to judges. The Supreme Court case will be the first instance where we trial this.”

Why do the Courts offer the public such a limited digital contribution? According to Burns, it can be largely explained by a combination of legacy systems and conservative attitudes. “We have been upholding old legacy systems across all 43 offices, which all have slightly customised systems which don’t easily interact with each other and will have to be replaced. We work in a conservative environment, with judges who don’t like to change. There are some who are very onboard, and there are others who are more tied in to more traditional methods. We have complex processes for managing court business, and many of those are concreted in legislation and court rules, making it difficult to make those changes.

“The big issue for us all is resources, both in ICT and business expertise. Whilst some talk of artificial intelligence and robotics, we have a long way to go.”

Barry Doyle

Since graduating with an MSc in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in 1994 Barry has worked as a GIS / IT professional and business consultant in various roles in both the public and private sector in Ireland. With over 13 years’ experience working as a Project Leader in the Irish Local Government Sector Barry has been responsible for leading and delivering various innovative projects at both a Local Authority and Sectoral level with a particular focus on Digital Transformation, Geographical Information Systems, Information Management and Open Data.

Prior to joining Galway County Council in November 2018 Barry championed, defined and led the Digital Transformation Programme in Roscommon Country Council with the overall aim of embracing opportunities presented by ongoing advances in the digital technologies, broadband availability and capacity, and Cloud based enterprise solutions to transform how the Council provides services to, and interacts with, the citizens it serves. In line with this Barry completed a Special Certificate in Designing Innovative Services with Cork Institute of Technology in 2018.


Gemma Garvan

Gemma Garvan is Director of Informatics at St James’s Hospital in Dublin which last year became the first digital acute hospital in Ireland, which is the start of a landmark change for how care is delivered.  Gemma is an experienced Health Informatics Leader with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital and health care industry.  Prior to taking up her role at St James’s Hospital in 2018 she was Head of Access to Information at Healthlink. Gemma began work as an analyst programmer with The National Healthlink Project and moved into a project management role over a decade ago. Gemma has a BSc in computer science and software engineering and an MA from Trinity College in Dublin.

Barry Lowry

Barry Lowry is CIO for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, a position he was appointed to in 2016. He is tasked with delivering the Public Service ICT Strategy. Prior to 2016, he spent almost 35 years in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) on work ranging from the programming of mainframe computers to operating as a team leader in the design of client server systems. For the five years prior to his appointment, Lowry was the director who oversaw the establishment of ICT shared services in NICS. He also operated as the Head of Profession for ICT. In 2011 he was voted the Northern Ireland IT Professional of the Year by his associates.

Kieran O’Hea

A native of Cork, Kieran O’Hea is Leicester City Council’s Head of Smart Cities, where he is leading the implementation of a Smart City Strategy that is city-needs led and demand-driven. He was formerly Chief Digital Officer of Brisbane, where he led the development of the city’s digital economy strategy. Before focusing on city strategies, Kieran led the development of digital strategies for a number of government agencies in Dublin. He has also worked for the European Commission, developing funding programmes in the area of digital content.

Donal Spellman

Donal Spellman is Principal Officer, Digital Services Channel at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. He joined the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in 2010 working initially in employment support policy and then as a Divisional Manger before moving to the Digital Service Division in 2016. Donal has a keen interest in service design & building online services around customer need.  Experience in other Departments including the Department of Finance, Agriculture and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General concentrated around policy formation and public policy and expenditure evaluation.

Tim Willoughby

Tim Willoughby is Head of Digital Services and Innovation at An Garda Síochána. He was formerly CTO of the LGMA, with over 20 years in a number of Senior Management and Technical Roles in the Local Government Sector. He has been working in the Public service for almost 28 years. Tim has a Civil Engineering Degree from TCD and a Masters in Innovation from the University of Ulster.

Moyagh Murdock

Moyagh Murdock has been in the transport sector for over 20 years in various capacities. Currently, Moyagh is the Chief Executive Officer at the Road Safety Authority. In her early career she spent 10 years in the airline industry having worked at Bombardier in Belfast as an aircraft systems engineer. She was then Chief Operating Officer for Bus Éireann having joined the Company in 2007 as the Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer with responsibility for the fleet maintenance and garage operations. In 2012 she was awarded an MBA from Dublin City University (DCU) and holds a Certificate of Professional Competence in Road Transport Operations Management.

Caron Alexander

Caron Alexander is Director of Digital Shared Services at the Northern Ireland Civil Service.  She has more than 30 years of experience in the UK public sector.  Caron is responsible for providing ICT shared services to 27,000 staff, for the NI citizen portal www.nidirect.gov.uk and contact centre services, delivering the NI Digital Transformation Programme and driving forward the NI Open Data agenda.  Previously Caron held a number of senior technical, programme and change management roles in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Contact Us


eolas magazine
Clifton House
Lower Fitzwilliam Street
Dublin 2, D02 XT91


Tel: +353 (0)1 661 3755
Email: info@eolasmagazine.ie
Twitter: @eolasmagazine

Michael Redmond

Michael Redmond is Chief Operating Officer at the Office of the CIO/eHealthIreland. A highly experienced leader within eHealth and Digital, Michael has a reputation for delivering results, driving excellence and building capability in each and every one of his career roles to date. Hugely experienced across the public sector, he is known to be acutely customer focussed; his strategy of simplifying the digital agenda resonates with the C-suite, staff and the general public alike. As COO, Michael manages the largest ICT investment budget in the whole public sector. Also a qualified and certified CIO, Michael studied Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin.

Stella Power

In 2008, Stella founded Annertech, Ireland’s leading open-source digital agency. Since its inception, Annertech have grown to become the "go to" Drupal experts in Ireland and work with a variety of clients in both the private and public sectors. Stella is an active contributor to the Drupal open-source content management system, and maintains many modules including Commerce Realex, Commerce Donate and Code Review. She is a member of the international Drupal Security Team, and was recently chairperson of the Drupal Ireland Association.

Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne is Head of Information Technology with Fingal County Council and has 26 years’ experience working in IT.  He holds a Degree in Information Technology and a Masters in Internet Systems.  He is responsible for managing the provision of IT services in Fingal County Council and his current interests include Digital Government, Smart Cities and Civic Tech.  He is a member of the Smart Dublin Executive Committee and the Public Bodies Working Group on Open Data.

Bill McCluggage

Bill McCluggage is Managing Director of Laganview Associates Ltd. He became the first CIO for the Irish Government in 2013 and was CIO for the Northern Ireland Civil Service (2005 – 2009). He joined the Cabinet Office in 2009 as deputy UK Government CIO. While in the Cabinet Office he was the Executive Director responsible for the UK Government’s ICT Strategy and was instrumental in the development of the Government G-Cloud, and was SRO for the Identity Assurance Programme, now GOV.UK Verify.

Charlie Weijer

Charlie Weijer is Area Vice President for DocuSign.  He is an experienced business leader, with proven sales and business development abilities. He has developed and executed growth strategies across EMEA in multiple high-tech organisations. He specialises in Sales, Sales operations, pipeline development and management. DocuSign is a hyper growth “startup” of over 300 people, Charlie has been responsible for scaling and leading the EMEA continental sales teams since 2015. He combines strong interpersonal, communication and negotiating skills, with a highly analytical mind. He completed an Executive MBA in 2013 at Smurfit School of Business to complete his academic profile and further complement relevant business experience. Charlie is passionate about coaching people.

Jane Carolan

Jane Carolan is National Director for Health Business Services at the Health Service Executive.  Jane is particularly focused on maximising digital business transformation within the health sector. She was instrumental in driving forward the national Electronic Health Record for Ireland. She is a member of the HSE Leadership Team and previously held the positions of Head of Planning and Corporate Performance and also Interim CIO of the Office of the CIO for six months.  Jane has over 20 years of experience in senior management roles within the health system. Jane has recently won two awards; IT Professional of the Year 2018 and was recognised as one of the CIO 100, 2019.

Dr Finn de Brí

Dr Finn de Bri is Chief Information Officer for the Houses of the Oireachtas, with responsibility for the Oireachtas Digital Transformation, which is a multi-annual transformation, incorporating 7 programmes of development and over 100 projects. Prior to this he was head of Taxes and Customs software application development in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. He holds a PhD in Information Systems from Trinity College Dublin.

Dr. Aileen McHugh

Dr. Aileen McHugh is Head of Operations at the Property Registration Authority (PRA) with a broad brief which includes overall responsibility for functions including HR, Finance, ICT, Corporate Services, Casework and Customer Service, Spatial Data and Mapping, Quality, Governance and Compliance. Since 2011 Aileen has gained expertise in embedding strategic workforce planning in the PRA.  PRA teams have been shortlisted and won several national awards for spatial data collaboration, diversity and inclusion initiatives, workforce planning, and most recently for the PRA’s innovative Property Alert Service.  The PRA is custodian of publicly valuable data assets and with the  rapidly changing global data landscape  Aileen’s interest has been focused most recently on issues relating to  emerging technologies and Data Governance, privacy and public registers.  Aileen holds a primary degree in Public Administration, a Masters in the Management of Change and a Doctorate in Business Administration. 

Cormac Murphy

Cormac has been involved with helping organizations transform digitally for over 10 years with experience at market-leading cloud organisations including Sage and Salesforce.com. He has developed a strong understanding of change across a wide range of industries, regions and viewpoints.

Currently responsible for Major accounts at DocuSign, Cormac leads the development of the Agreement Cloud community in Ireland. He holds a B.A. in Applied Languages from Technological University Dublin and speaks French and Spanish.

K Ananth Krishnan

As the Chief Technology Officer, Ananth directs Research, Innovation and Co-Innovation in TCS.  Under his leadership, TCS has created significant IP with business impact.  He has architected an industry-leading agile delivery model and has scaled innovation deep into business units.  He travels extensively to share his perspective on emerging digital trends with senior client teams in the public and private sector.  He also supports clients to implement the appropriate response to the threats and opportunities which these trends present. Ananth has been a member of the TCS Corporate Leadership team since 1999 and has led many strategic initiatives.  He has served on various Governing Councils of Academia, Industry Advisory Boards, and Government and Alumni committees.  He has previously been listed in Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders and in Infoworld’s Top 25 CTOs.

Damian Griffin

Damian is the Chief Technical Officer at the Defence Forces. Commandant Damian Griffin has successfully translated technology to the Defence Forces for over 20 years. Never one to accept the status quo, Damian is continually motivated to ensure the Defence Forces progress secure technology solutions in the right areas and for the right reasons. His current areas of focus are the umbrella of technologies required to deliver Digital Transformation with a close alignment to design thinking methodologies.