Common Platform: HMCTS opts to retain existing case-management tool for criminal courts

The courts service has downscaled its plans for the ongoing rollout of the £300m new IT system and will keep in place incumbent software in order to ‘protect operational performance’

HM Courts and Tribunals Service has scrapped part of the controversial Common Platform programme, opting to retain a digital case management system used in Crown Courts.

Digital Case System (DCS), a shared digital platform used by the judiciary, HMCTS, Crown Prosecution Service and the Bar to store and access case material for Crown Court hearings, has been in place since 2016.

In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, HMCTS chief executive Nick Goodwin said plans to replace this with new functions in Common Platform and a bespoke workflow-management system have been abandoned “to protect operational performance of the criminal courts”.

Goodwin said the reforms would have been “a significant change for HMCTS, the judiciary, legal professionals, and the criminal bar in particular” amid the current backlog in the Crown Court. He said that the cancellation of this part of the Common Platform reforms would also help to keep the programme “deliverable”.

A blog on the changes, by crime programme director Daniel Flury, added that HMCTS decided to keep the system after hearing feedback from staff, judges and legal professionals that it “works well” and continues to meet their needs.

The Crown Court backlog hit a record high in September, with more than 64,000 cases waiting to be heard.

The decision to keep the DCS system means that, for now, there will be no change to the way legal professionals use systems for Crown Court cases. They will carry on using DCS for accessing case material and for document management in the Crown Court, while using Common Platform for this purpose in the Magistrates’ Court.

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Legal professionals working in Crown Courts will still need to use the Common Platform for checking into hearings, accessing full details of cases, and for some other features.

The removal of the functions from the programme “will reduce the financial benefits expected” from Common Platform, Goodwin said. But he added that HMCTS will look at ways to “enhance” the existing DCS system, including “examining the potential for interfaces between the Common Platform and DCS, allowing us to join up the existing technology for court users”.

The £300m Common Platform rollout has been controversial, with court officials at civil service union PCS holding months of strikes over the reforms. The union reached an agreement in March 2023 to end the dispute, with HMCTS agreeing several concessions, including giving autonomy to legal advisers and court associates in deciding which cases are inputted out of court and committing to protect 450-plus jobs until at least 2024. PCS, however, continued its campaign to scrap the platform.

Asked by CSW about HMCTS’s decision to ditch part of the programme, PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote said: “We welcome the news that HMCTS plans to retain DCS because, as case management systems go, it’s popular with our members and others in the legal profession because it works.

“Common Platform is vastly overspent and remains unfit for purpose. This announcement by HMCTS would seem to be a tacit acceptance of both.”

HMCTS announced in September that Common Platform had been rolled out across the UK’s Crown and Magistrates’ Courts. The programme is due to end in March 2025. For the final year of the programme, Flury said HMCTS is focused on making “further improvements to the platform that will ultimately allow us to stop using our legacy Libra and Xhibit systems”.

A HMCTS spokesperson said: “Common Platform has handled more than 1.4 million cases since going live in 2020 and is in use in all police force areas and criminal courts in England and Wales. We thank court staff, judges and legal professionals for their feedback and have decided to revise our plans for extending the platform while we work to improve and enhance existing systems for all users.”

Tevye Markson

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