Tech News : Computer Says “Guilty”

An error in the HM Courts and Tribunals Service computer system meant that 5,000+ defendants were wrongly assigned guilty pleas.

Accidental Criminal Convictions

The problem that led to 5,000+ people being wrongly given criminal convictions was an error in the computer system’s bulk amendment facility, which was used to update the cases of magistrates’ hearings that were adjourned due to the impact of the pandemic. The error meant that guilty pleas were copied onto cases that defendants were still contesting.

Where?

It has been reported that the error has affected cases related to magistrates’ courts in Westminster, Highbury, Wimbledon, Willesden, Thames, Uxbridge, Croydon, Bexley, and Bromley.

Example

As far back as last October, The Guardian newspaper questioned whether convictions on the Police National Computer were accurate after it uncovered an example of where a mistake appeared to have been made. At the time, a female defendant who had denied an offence related to a violent crime had a guilty plea entered on the PNC. This meant that she gained a criminal conviction which took her lawyers three months to correct, and led to HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) writing to the defendant to apologise for the error.

Investigations by HMCTS following this example revealed that 5,231 individual defendants and 55 companies had actually been affected by the computer bulk uploads error.

The ICO

The error was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) by the Ministry of Justice in October and it has been reported that, after a comprehensive review, the correct ‘not guilty’ pleas were restored by mid-November.

Although an HMCTS spokesperson said that the issue was “temporary” and had been “promptly resolved” with no-one receiving an incorrect verdict or sentence, the ICO has said “People have the right to expect that organisations will handle their personal information… responsibly”.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Under UK GDPR, businesses are expected to comply with data laws and to act responsibly with the data of customers, employees, and other stakeholders or face some serious consequences (e.g. large fines and reputational damage).  Some businesses may, therefore, feel justified in criticising the police over the errors in their computer system which could have caused problems for thousands of people and for businesses. For example, it is possible that before the error was discovered, a criminal record check by a potential employer could not only have resulted in the candidate not getting the job due to a wrongly recorded conviction but may also have robbed the business of the hiring an otherwise great candidate who may have brought considerable skills to the company. There are also, of course, the potential the emotional and social effects to consider of a person being (wrongfully) assigned a conviction to consider. 

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