Computer-related Communication Problems Lead to False Arrests in Australia

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There is a nice little scandal brewing in New South Wales, Australia.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald this week, lawyers for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) are going to file a class action lawsuit against the NSW government to force a computer problem "that has led to dozens of people, including children, being wrongfully arrested and often falsely imprisoned" to be rectified.

The SMH story claims that the computer system used by the NSW Police Force does not always contain accurate information on the status of NSW court cases. So, for example, when a person's bail condition gets changed or expire, the police may not possess up-to-date knowledge about the changes. This has led to situations where the police think the person is in violation of their bail conditions, which in turn often results in that person's (false) arrest. The PIAC estimates that about four people a week are being falsely arrested in this manner, says this story at SkyNews.

The SMH article goes on to report that over the past financial year, 22 people (including some juveniles) have been paid A$2.7 million in compensation for unlawful arrest based on incorrect bail or other legal information. Another 10 persons are alleged to have suffered the same fate, and are contemplating joining PIAC's lawsuit.

The PIAC says that it has been complaining about the problem for over three years, without success. The PIAC also states that the NSW police claim that it is a court-related computer issue that is the responsibility of the NSW Attorney-General to fix, while the NSW Attorney-General says that it is a police-related computer system issue. As a result of the finger-pointing, the problem just keeps muddling on.

The PIAC litigation is to try to discover where the responsibility for the computer-related communication problem actually resides and then to force the problem to be fixed.

The NSW Opposition Liberal Party, sensing some political points to be scored, has jumped on the news, claiming in this SMH story that it is the NSW Attorney-General's court computer system called JusticeLink that is at fault. The Opposition party says that JusticeLink will be promptly reviewed if it is elected in March of next year.

The news story of false arrests merely added more political ammunition to the Opposition's potshots at JusticeLink, which was finally completed in June several years late and over-budget. An audit report (see PDF here) in early December by NSW Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat states that the system's scope was not well-thought out from its inception, which in turn led to continual technical and financial problems over the course of its nearly 10 year development.

JusticeLink, which operates at all levels of the NSW civil and criminal court system, is supposed to be updated daily with the different courts' decisions, and is also supposed to be accessible by all NSW justice agencies including the NSW Police Force. It is unclear to me, anyway, whether the computer system that the NSW Police Force use is automatically updated by JusticeLink, or whether the police have to download updates from JusticeLink on a daily basis. Maybe someone in NSW can shed some more light on the issue.

I'll update this story, which no doubt will be in the headlines for awhile, in the new year as things develop.

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