HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings, and is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme, says today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
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.
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 £265 million. As well as making savings, HMCTS believes the reformed system will work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately and make processes more accessible to users.
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 estimates there will be a funding shortfall of £61 million 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 £177 million.
HMCTS completed the first stage of the reforms in September 2017. 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.
Challenges exist in delivering the change portfolio, such as its reliance on other organisations to invest in new technology and change working practices, whilst having 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, which remains uncertain. Without this legislation, HMCTS may have to make changes to the planned reforms, which is likely to cause further delays, increase costs and reduce benefits.
The NAO recommends 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. HMCTS must also provide more detail on how the modernised services will work in practice, what has already happened and what else needs to be done. It should 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.