The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published its report on HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s (‘HMCTS’) £1.2 billion programme to modernise the courts. It does not make happy reading.
The committee described the programme as “hugely ambitious and on a scale which has never been attempted anywhere before.” It explains that:
“Transforming the courts and tribunals system in this way will change how people access justice by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services”, but warns that: “Such sweeping changes will be extremely challenging to deliver.”
Worryingly, the Committee goes on: “The performance of HMCTS to date shows that it has much to learn if it intends to do everything it plans. Despite extending its timetable from four to six years, HMCTS has already fallen behind, delivering only two-thirds of what is expected to at this stage, and it still has not shared a sufficiently well-developed plan of what it is trying to achieve.”
It gets worse. The report says:
“The pressure to deliver quickly and make savings is limiting HMCTS’ ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and risks it driving forward changes before it fully understands the impact on users and the justice system more widely. HMCTS needs to ensure that the savings expected from these reforms are genuine rather than the consequence of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system such as the police, prison service or Crown Prosecution Service, all of which have their own pressures to manage. Without a better grip on these wider issues, there is a significant risk that HCMTS will fail to deliver the benefits it expects.”
The report’s conclusions are damning, including that the committee has “little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme”, that “HMCTS has failed to articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like”, and that “HMCTS has not adequately considered how the reforms will impact access to, and the fairness of, the justice system for the people using it”. The report makes various recommendations to deal with these issues and others that the committee identified.
The Chair of the Committee, Meg Hillier MP, commented:
“Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.
Our report recommends action to address these failings. But even if this programme, or a version of it, get back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely.
There is an old line in the medical profession—’the operation was successful but the patient died’.
It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services.
Government must engage properly with these challenges and explain how it will shepherd this programme through the upheaval taking place across the justice system.”
One is hardly left with confidence that the programme will deliver what it has promised.
Undeterred, HMCTS CEO Susan Acland-Hood responded to the report by saying:
“Today’s report highlights the ambitious and transformational nature of our reform programme. We will study the committee’s recommendations and respond in detail.
Significant progress is being made to deliver the programme, including new digital services which have seen high take-up and satisfaction rates.
We do recognise the need to engage more actively with our key stakeholders, and this is a key priority over the next phase of reform. This is a challenging programme but we remain confident that it is on track to deliver the benefits promised and to help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”
To give HMCTS some credit, at least from the point of view of the family law, their digitised divorce application process does appear to be working quite well (the pilot has been extended until March next year), but that is just a tiny part of the anticipated progress. There is an awfully long way to go, and a daunting number of ways in which court users could be left with a system that does not work satisfactorily.
We can only hope that HMCTS takes the Committee’s concerns and recommendations fully on board, but for things to be as bad as the Committee states, some two years into the programme does not bode well.