HMCTS reforms ‘risk disadvantaging people with poor IT skills’

MPs warn of potential impact on access to justice

Credit: Clara Molden/PA

HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s £1.2bn transforming courts and tribunals programme could undermine trust in justice shut out people with poor digital skills from the system, MPs have warned.

The seven-year drive that started in 2016 aims to alter the way criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals operate by introducing new technology, working practices and changing the way HMCTS uses its buildings – targeting savings of £244m a year in the process.

A key element is a drive to host 2.4m fewer cases in court rooms every year, allowing for a raft of court closures. HMCTS has shut 127 courts since 2015 and plans to close a further 77 courts in the next phase of the reforms.

However, a report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, published last week, said HMCTS – an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice – risked undermining confidence in the fairness of the justice system because it could not demonstrate sufficient understanding of the impact of the reforms.

“HMCTS is rolling out new systems and processes without first assessing the success, or otherwise, of experiences to date,” MPs said.

“To date its evaluation has largely been process-based, focussing on how new technology is working rather than the impact on people or justice outcomes.

“For example, HMCTS has not fully explored the impact that using video-hearings has on outcomes for defendants. Although some digitised services like divorce seem to be working well, representatives from Transform Justice, Law Centres Network and the Law Society are concerned about how online services may disadvantage users with low digital or legal literacy.

“Such people may be less likely to seek legal representation, putting them at risk of making uninformed decisions or incurring unknown costs.”

The report said an interim evaluation that was due to look at those issues was not due until 2021, which was “too long to wait for a better understanding of impacts”.

Echoing concerns flagged by the National Audit Office in September, MPs observed that HMCTS also could not demonstrate that £133m in claimed savings from the programme to were attributable to the reforms, meaning taxpayers could not be confident they were getting what was promised.

“HMCTS cannot clearly demonstrate the link between where savings come from and the reforms it has introduced,” the report said

“It acknowledges that this is difficult due to its limited understanding of precisely what its staff are doing and is working to improve its data.

“Although we recognise work is underway to address this, we are surprised it is not more advanced given the need to demonstrate to Parliament and the public that the reforms are delivering what was promised.”

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said the report reflected the ambitious and challenging nature of the programme and the progress being made.

But she also accepted the need for the service to “redouble” its efforts to listen to and engage with all those who work within the justice system.

“The committee acknowledges improvements in this area but rightly says there is more to do to win hearts and minds,” she said.

“By re-designing the justice system around those who use it we are making it more accessible to all. More than 250,000 members of the public have used our new online services since last year with over 80% satisfied

“Many of those users have told us that such services – like the new online Civil Money Claims service that has now received more than 100,000 claims – have given them access to justice not previously available.”

She added: “Improving access to justice is at the heart of our programme and we will continue to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it progresses.”


Sam Trendall

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