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.

“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.”

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals

Notes for editors

£265m annual expected savings from the HMCTS change portfolio from 2023-24 onwards 5,000 planned reduction in the number of HMCTS full-time equivalent staff by March 2023 2.4m planned reduction in number of cases held in physical courtrooms each year
£1.9 billion Her Majesty's Courts &Tribunal Service's (HMCTS) total spending in 2016-17
1,500 reductions in HMCTS full-time equivalent staff between March 2015 and July 2017
15,000 4.1 million £1.2 billion number of HMCTS full-time equivalent staff in September 2017 number of court cases processed by HMCTS in 2016-17 total planned cost of implementing the changes
March 2022 date when the reforms are due to complete (with changes fully embedded by March 2023)
£61 million gap between allocated funding and implementation cost (assuming past underspends can be carried forward to future years)
  Notes for Editors
  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  2. The Courts Reform Programme consists of several related programme, made up of many individual projects. The major programmes are:
    1. The HMCTS Reform Programme, which aims to reduce demand on courts by modernising processes and systems, for example through greater use of online services and video hearings.
    2. The Common Platform Programme (CPP), which is developing a single criminal justice case management system for HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Police.
    3. The Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP), which is upgrading the systems used to enforce court orders such as penalties and compensation,
  3. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 785 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services. Our work led to audited savings of £734 million in 2016.

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