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HMCTS behind schedule on “ambitious” court reform programme, says watchdog

HM Courts Service is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme, the National Audit Office has warned.

The spending watchdog also warned that the organisation “faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings”.

In 2016, HMCTS set up a portfolio of change programmes to introduce new technology and working practices to reform and upgrade the justice system. “The planned changes affect every aspect of HMCTS's activities,” the NAO said. 

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual spending by £265m.

HMCTS believes the reformed system will work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately and make processes more accessible to users.

However, the NAO said on publication of its report, Early progress on transforming courts and tribunals: “Despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties to reduce risks in delivering this change portfolio – including extending the timetable from four to six years, reducing the scope and scaling back planned benefits – delivering the reforms successfully remains extremely challenging. The NAO believes there is a significant risk that HMCTS will not be able to achieve all it wants within the time available.”

HMCTS itself estimates there will be a funding shortfall of £61m in future years, assuming that HM Treasury agrees that all previous years’ underspends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the funding gap could be £177m, the NAO pointed out.

The watchdog examined the first stage of the reforms, which were completed in September 2017. It said: “While one area has performed better than anticipated (the estates reform project has generated more income than expected), there have been significant delays in developing and delivering the Common Platform case management system, a key component of HMCTS's programme to move from a paper-based to a fully digital system.”

The NAO also warned that challenges existed in delivering the change portfolio, such as HMCTS’ reliance on other organisations to invest in new technology and change working practices, whilst it had limited influence over these groups.

HMCTS is also reliant on new legislation being introduced for some elements of the reforms, such as the planned extension of virtual hearings. This remains uncertain, the NAO noted, adding that without this legislation, HMCTS might have to make changes to the planned reforms, which was likely to cause further delays, increase costs and reduce benefits.

The watchdog recommended that HMCTS:

  • works with Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and other organisations in the justice system to jointly anticipate and manage possible adverse consequences of the planned changes
  • provides more detail on how the modernised services will work in practice, what has already happened and what else needs to be done
  • provide greater transparency of its objectives and progress and
  • be clear how it is adapting plans in response to challenges.

“Being open in this way will help ensure taxpayers and stakeholders have a clearer picture of what is happening, and can hold HMCTS to account for its performance,” the NAO said.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “Modernising the justice system is an ambitious challenge. HMCTS has improved its approach, but overall it is behind where it expected to be and significant risks remain. Not only could these delay improvements being delivered on time, the tight timetable could also force HMCTS to make changes before fully understanding the consequences for the justice system. HMCTS must continue to adapt its approach if it hopes to successfully deliver a modern justice system that works better for everyone and achieve necessary savings for the taxpayer.”

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