Costs News

10 May 2018
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Courts service faces “daunting challenge” to deliver £1bn transformation project

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) faces “a daunting challenge” to deliver the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve the required savings – and is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme – the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

The government’s £1bn investment in the justice system started in 2016, and consists of HMCTS’s extensive use of technology such as online services and video hearings, the introduction of a common platform for the criminal justice system and a shrinking of the court estate.

The NAO said that, by March 2023, HMCTS expected to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff (from the current 16,500), reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual spending by £265m.

“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.”

However, the NAO said that, despite “the best efforts” of HMCTS and others 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 said there was now “a significant risk” that HMCTS would not be able to achieve all it wants within the time available.

HMCTS completed the first stage of the reforms in September 2017. While one area has performed better than anticipated – selling off some of the court estate has generated more income than expected – the NAO said there have been significant delays in developing and delivering the common platform.

“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.”

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “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.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, added: “The Ministry of Justice’s transformation plan for courts and tribunals has an ambitious scope, especially given that the ministry is in the midst of so much change across the whole department. All this at a time when they also need to make savings of half a billion pounds a year.

“The Ministry of Justice is seeking to modernise our justice system, but needs to be clear about which of the promised benefits it will actually be able to deliver.”

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood was bullish in response, describing the report as “helpful and constructive”.

“We are pleased that the NAO acknowledges our ‘early progress’, and its recommendations are already helping to strengthen the way we run the programme. We are confident, therefore, that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it…

“The report has highlighted some areas for us to focus on as the programme continues, and will help us ensure that this vital programme of reform is delivered effectively and efficiently.”

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