HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has made progress, but is behind schedule with its ambitious plan to reform the justice system to make it simpler and cheaper to run. It faces a significant challenge to deliver it on time and to budget, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Today the NAO reports on the progress of the programme, which is at a critical stage. In January 2019, HMCTS completed the second phase of its reforms. It has rolled-out some new services1 which people can now access more easily online. It has also established its first two courts and tribunals service centres, which have standardised support for some civil, family and tribunal services.

HMCTS has also responded to concerns raised by the NAO by strengthening its approach to stakeholder engagement andbeing more transparent about the progress of its reforms. However, a recent survey undertaken by HMCTS found that many respondents were still concerned about its openness and transparency.

Some services are not yet fully available to the public because HMCTS has made less progress than anticipated. When the NAO last reported on the programme in May 2018 HMCTS was behind where it hoped to be, and this is still the case.2 By January 2019 it had only completed 78% of its stage 2 milestones. By the end of March 2019 it had spent £540 million, which is less than anticipated. This is because the delays in completing projects have meant that fewer staff than expected have left, requiring fewer redundancy payments.

HMCTS has also reduced the scope of its wider reforms by cancelling two projects. It has extended the timetable for the reform programme by one year until December 2023, meaning it will now take seven years. HMCTS had previously extended the timetable from four to six years following scrutiny before the programme formally began in 2016.

While these changes do not affect the broad objectives of reform, they mean that lifetime savings have now fallen by £172 million to £2.1 billion. At the same time, the savings to date of £133 million claimed by HMCTS may not all have directly resulted from its reforms. HMCTS can track certain savings, such as those related to property costs. However, for some others, it relies on a series of models and assumptions to predict savings and does not check whether all these savings have materialised in the way it expected. It recognises that it needs to implement a more rigorous approach.

HMCTS has closed 127 courts and tribunals in England and Wales and generated £124 million through property sales since the start of estates reform in 2015, which is broadly on track against plans.3 It has postponed future court closures until later in the programme because of delays in completing other reforms which aim to move hearings out of courtrooms and therefore free-up court capacity. It has also reduced its estimate of the number of future closures it expects to make from 96 to 77 following a value for money assessment. For a breakdown of where courts and tribunals have been closed in England and Wales, see the NAO’s interactive map.

HMCTS has followed a structured process when closing sites. However, stakeholders have raised concerns that HMCTS is not being transparent enough in how it makes decisions, particularly when assessing access to justice. HMCTS has reconsidered its approach to future closures and published a new strategy in 2019.

HMCTS needs to better understand the impact of its reforms, including how they are affecting users of the justice system. It should do this by publishing its data on the effects of court closures and using feedback on how new services are being received to inform the development of future reforms. As it enters the third stage of its reforms it must move from designing new services to ramping up their implementation.  

“HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services, but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions. The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Transforming courts and tribunals: a progress update

Notes for editors

Key facts

  • £540m Reported spend on reform by the end of March 2019 by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS)
  • 127 Courts and tribunals closed since the start of reform, with a further 12 still due to close
  • £124m Reported proceeds by the end of March 2019 from property sales
  • £172 million reduction in lifetime savings (to 2028-29) due to scope and timing changes in the latest business case, published in early 2019
  • £244 million annual expected savings from reforms from 2024-25 onwards 16,129 full time equivalent (FTE) employed by HMCTS, of which around 2,000 are contractors in 2018-19. This is 91 fewer staff in total than 2017-18
  • 78% percentage of milestones due for this stage that were completed by January 2019 December 2023 date by which HMCTS expects to complete reform, following a one-year extension to the timetable. HMCTS had previously extended the timetable from four to six years following scrutiny before the programme formally began in 2016

Notes for Editors

  1. This includes bringing divorce, civil money claims and probate services fully or partly online, with simplified forms and faster processing.
  2. In May 2018, the NAO published a report setting out the objectives, early performance and risks of the reform programme. We concluded that HMCTS faced a daunting challenge to deliver the scale of change necessary and that there was a very significant risk that the full change programme would prove to be undeliverable in the time available. Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals (May 2018).
  3. Six of the 127 sites were closed before 2015 but disposed after, contributing £1 million of the total £124 million sales proceeds.
  4. 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.
  5. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. 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 government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

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