Prosecution dismissed against judge who accessed Digital Case System
A prosecution under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 against Her Honour Judge Karen Holt has been dismissed by Mr Justice William Davis, sitting at Southwark Crown Court, who ruled there was no case to answer. The trial had been listed for 9 July 2018 and will not now proceed.
HHJ Holt, charged under her married name of Karen Smith, was accused of illegally accessing the Digital Case System (DCS) file of defendant Cecil McCready on 30 September 2016. Mr McCready was accused of sexual assaults against three children, and eventually pleaded guilty some months later. It is understood that HHJ Holt accessed the DCS, looking through the Magistrates’ "sending sheet" and some of the prosecution witness statements, of which her daughter was one such witness. The DCS file was open for around 10 minutes. HHJ Holt later telephoned Guildford Crown Court, where Mr McCready’s trial was due to be heard, to ensure that the trial judge was not someone who knew either herself or her daughter.
A key Prosecution witness, Sarah Rose, HM Courts and Tribunal Service Joint Deputy Director for Crime, accepted that access to cases on the DCS is not limited to those cases allocated to the particular judge. The inference here was that, as of September 2016, judges such as HHJ Holt could access DCS files for all matters - including those on which they were not sitting. Guidance about access was not sent to full-time judges until April 2017. That guidance warned judges not to browse through DCS “out of curiosity or for personal reasons”, and that doing so might trigger an investigation. However, this guidance post-dated HHJ Holt’s access to the McCready file by several months, and was about 18 months after DCS files first came into use. Before there was a clear policy about which judges were allowed to read which DCS files, and where it appears all full-time judges were given comprehensive DCS access, it is hardly surprising that Mr Davis found insufficient evidence to show that HHJ Holt’s access to the McCready file was unauthorised. HHJ Holt was, on the face of it, simply trying to ensure that the prosecution in which her daughter was a witness was not listed before a judge who would have to withdraw due to a personal connection/ perception of bias.
On one view, it is surprising that this prosecution was ever brought. This is an example of a digital file system being brought into being before adequate guidance for its users had been circulated. It also seems unclear whether all full-time judges currently retain automatic access to all DCS files within England and Wales, or whether that access has now been limited to those who are likely to need access when sitting.
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