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MoJ and courts launch senior data governance panel

Greater data sharing could bring benefits to the justice system, but some experts are sceptical it can be done safely.

By Sophia Waterfield

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) are forming a senior data governance panel to ‘maximise the benefits’ of using data from the English and Welsh justice systems. However, data governance experts warn that minority groups could be further harmed.

Made up of ten officials and judges from HMCTS and the MoJ, including two co-chairs, the two departments are looking for an additional five independent members. These panel members are expected to have expertise in data science and research, innovation and law tech, data privacy and ethics and appropriate use or reuse of data. 

The MoJ and HMCTS are forming a panel to specialise in data governance. (Photo by PanuShot/Shutterstock)

The panel’s role will be to advise and guide the departments on the access to and use of court and tribunal data. It will focus on four main principles: open justice, independence of the judiciary, rule of law and maintaining public confidence in the justice system. 

This is the latest move from the MoJ to explore the use of its created data following the Data First programme. As part of its work, the department developed an open-source python package known as Splink, used to link some of its largest datasets. 

MoJ wants data-sharing experts to inform its data governance

In its job board posting, the MoJ and HMCTS are looking for five members to partake in its senior data governance panel for a two-year period. The application process closes on 13 February. 

Calling on people from academic settings, third-sector organisations, the private sector and other public sectors, the two departments say that members will contribute to realising the ambition “to use available data effectively” to support access to justice. They also want to ensure data facilitates transparency in their work without sacrificing individuals’ data and the principle of judicial independence. 

The collective of justice members and independent experts will support data policy development as well as decisions relating to the use of data by the judiciary as well as the two departments. It also refers to data use and re-use by ‘third parties’. 

MoJ data sharing triggers concerns following government blunders 

While data experts have applauded this move by the MoJ, they have raised concerns about the potential pitfalls that come from data sharing and reusing data. 

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In late 2022, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) scolded the Department for Education (DfE) after it found the government department had allowed data from 28 million UK schoolchildren to be used by an age verification company to check if users of gambling sites were over 18. Speaking at the time, the data watchdog stated that the sharing of data was “unlawful” and in contravention of data protection law. 

Other organisations such as national and local NHS Trusts have also been warned by data privacy experts regarding their dealing with third parties such as Palantir.

Such incidents illustrate that greater data sharing is not a “simple process”, experts have warned.

“There are several pitfalls and dangers that need to be navigated – around privacy, ethics, transparency and fairness,” Phil Beckett, managing director and European and Middle East practice leader for disputes and investigations, at consultancy Alvarez & Marsal told Tech Monitor. “The panel will need to ensure that they get the balance right between driving benefit and protecting the interests of the public.” 

Beckett says that a key proving ground for the panel will be its ideas and approach to artificial intelligence (AI) and ethics: “AI could derive huge benefits and the vast amounts of data available could generate efficiencies and insights that are truly transformative. But at what potential cost?,” he asks.

The use of AI brings forward concerns about data bias, especially regarding different ethnicities. Beckett cautions that the panel must not “race headlong” into implementing AI adoption without giving thought to safe design models. 

Independent experts need to consider data protection law reforms

The Open Rights Group (ORG) also welcomes attempts by the government departments to improve transparency and accessibility of court and tribunal data. But, it flags that the panel will need to consider the impact of the proposed reforms of the UK’s data protection laws, led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 

Marginalised groups could be affected most by the reforms and could conflict with the panel’s desire to explore the effect of justice on socially or economically disadvantaged groups, says Sophia Akram, the ORG’s policy manager.

“Improving the governance of the court and tribunal data alone isn’t going to advance access to justice for these groups,” Akram says, pointing to what she describes as “misguided use of digital evidence in court cases” as one problem the panel won’t be able to address.

“We’re seeing a worrying reliance on decontextualised private chat and social media content as evidence to criminalise individuals,” she says, adding: “What’s more as we see continued over-surveillance of marginalised communities through intrusive databases, such as the Gangs Matrix, data from which is irresponsibly and opaquely shared between public departments. We ask the governance panel to take heed of the impact of oversharing of data and the current safeguards as enshrined in the Data Protection Act 2018.”

Data governance panel could ‘set the foundations for standardised rules’

One expert is hopeful that this panel could pave the way for other departments to tighten their data governance policies.

Caroline Carruthers, a former National Rail chief data officer, told Tech Monitor that the establishment of the senior panel not only shows that the importance of data governance has gone mainstream in the public sector, but that it also could lay the foundations for the future of governance policies within the sector and other government departments. 

“We’ve seen over the years the challenges caused by differing standards between public sector institutions,” Carruthers says. “With a defined set of standards, public bodies will ensure that data-based decision making is made that bit easier, with a defined set of rules to refer back to. Ultimately, this new data governance panel will lead to improved data-led decision making, mitigating some of the innovation inertia within the judiciary.”

Now CEO of data consultancy Carruthers and Jackson, she adds that this panel isn’t anywhere near the “end of the road” in defining policy and says it is “important that the government doesn’t just sit on its hands and pat itself on the back”.

Tech Monitor has contacted the MoJ for more details on the panel but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Read more: What’s next for data in the UK’s public sector?

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