MPs air more doubts on progress of £1bn courts digitisation scheme
Public Accounts Committee follows the NAO in voicing 'serious concerns' about reform programme
HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s £1.2bn modernisation programme is behind schedule and at risk of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system, MPs have warned.
A new report from the Public Accounts Committee says the programme, which aims to change the way people access justice by closing courts, introducing “virtual hearings”, centralising customer services, and digitising paper-based services, will be “extremely challenging to deliver”.
The committee said that despite extending the programme’s timescale from four to six years, the project, which launched in 2016, had only achieved two-thirds of what had been expected by this point in its delivery, leaving members with “little confidence” its overall targets would be met.
HMCTS’ portfolio of reforms ultimately seeks to reduce the number of physical court hearings by 2.4 million a year by 2023. During 2016-17 the organisation processed a total of 4.1 million cases. It also wants to directly employ around 5,000 fewer staff.
In total, HMCTS anticipates savings of £265m a year from the modernisation programme because of lower administration and judicial costs, fewer physical hearings and running a smaller court estate. The figure would account for around half of the Ministry of Justice’s savings target from the 2015 Spending Review.
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But the PAC said pressure to deliver quickly and make savings was limiting HMCTS’ ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and meant it was risking driving forward changes before it fully understood the impact on users and the wider justice system.
Committee members said HMCTS needed to ensure that the savings expected from the reforms were genuine and not a consequence of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system, such as the police, prison service or Crown Prosecution Service.
They concluded that without a better grip on the wider issues, there was a “significant risk” that HCMTS would fail to deliver the benefits it expected.
Committee chair Meg Hiller said it was clear that the government had cut corners in its rush to push through the HMCTS reforms and that there would be price to pay for its haste.
“The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice,” she said. “Even if this programme, or a version of it, gets back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely.
Hillier added: “There is an old line in the medical profession – 'the operation was successful but the patient died'. It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services. Government must engage properly with these challenges and explain how it will shepherd this programme through the upheaval taking place across the justice system.”
HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood accepted that the programme was “challenging” but insisted that it would deliver on its goals.
“Today’s report highlights the ambitious and transformational nature of our reform programme. We will study the committee’s recommendations and respond in detail,” she said. "Significant progress is being made to deliver the programme, including new digital services which have seen high take-up and satisfaction rates. We do recognise the need to engage more actively with our key stakeholders, and this is a key priority over the next phase of reform.
Acland-Hood added: "This is a challenging programme but we remain confident that it is on track to deliver the benefits promised and to help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”
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