HMCTS does not know if its £1.3bn courts reform programme is on track or achieving the efficiencies intended, according to public spending watchdogs. A dearth of routine data is a major reason

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has taken some impressive strides in adopting new technology over the past three years. However, much of the innovation, driven by the need to stay in business during the pandemic, was achieved alongside, rather than through, the government’s £1.3bn modernisation programme. As that seven-year initiative nears its end, it is clear that more time will be needed to realise its benefits, even where we have the data to measure them.

In the bleak words of the National Audit Office (NAO) this week: ‘HMCTS does not expect its £1.3bn courts reform programme to meet its current timetable or achieve its full scope.’ The watchdog’s report on the reform programme, its third, finds the service still struggling with the changes. This will come as no surprise to users of the troubled common platform case management system, a key plank of the reform.

But some of the difficulties are more systemic. The NAO found that, for all its talk of business cases, HMCTS simply does not know whether its reforms are achieving the sought-for efficiencies.

‘While it recorded a net total of £311m in savings from running costs between 2014-15 and 2021-22, it acknowledges that these figures may not be fully attributable to reform. Costs of running many services are higher than pre-reform and it lacks routine data on how efficiently reformed services are operating.’

The government’s auditor reports that some new services are not yet operating as expected. ‘For example, many online divorce and probate cases needed manual interventions by court staff despite the relevant project being marked as complete. The programme’s expected lifetime savings are now £2bn, 13% less than those expected in 2019. And, as yet, HMCTS has no overarching benefits realisation plan.’

Some of the claimed benefits of the reform are little more than guesses. For example, a prediction that a justice system which is more attractive to clients will result in a 0.5% rise in legal services exports.

Law Society president Lubna Shuja summed up the profession’s worries: ‘Our concern, reflected in the NAO’s report, is that delays in the courts are being exacerbated by ineffective reforms, which are costing more time and wasting money.’

The courts and tribunals reform programme formally kicked off in 2016, although the ambition to integrate justice IT systems pre-dates it by a decade. Even before the pandemic, progress was troubled, with the NAO warning in 2019 of tensions between quick delivery and damage to services. Its latest business case, approved in spring 2021, involved a 10% increase in the programme’s cost, to £1.291bn.

Despite, this, the NAO found that as of November 2022, the programme had only fully or partly rolled out 29 out of its 44 projects. Some remain ‘in early development’. According to the NAO, ‘it is unclear if HMCTS can deliver the outstanding scope with the remaining funding’.

'Our concern, reflected in the NAO’s report, is that delays in the courts are being exacerbated by ineffective reforms, which are costing more time and wasting money'

Lubna Shuja, Law Society

With the clock now ticking, HMCTS faces daunting problems.

First, only £120m remains in the budget to complete the programme; partly, the NAO says, because underspends in previous years could not be rolled over.

Much remains to be done to ensure standardised processes are adopted by a diverse range of users, ‘over which it has limited influence’. These include judges and, in the criminal justice sector, ‘customers’ who are almost by definition uncooperative.

Despite the looming deadline, HMCTS ‘may not have a comprehensive view of the outstanding work needed to deliver the benefits of its 2021 business case’. For example, by November 2022 it had assessed only seven of the programme’s projects. ‘It is therefore likely that it has not captured the full extent of the outstanding work,’ the NAO says with mild understatement.

To cap it all, the NAO reports that HMCTS faces difficulty recruiting and retaining staff to develop and run reformed services. ‘HMCTS has also noted concerns over staff attrition in project delivery roles caused by staff burnout and lack of job certainty as the programme ends. This presents risks to delivering remaining work and retaining knowledge.’

The NAO concludes with a revelation: as late as last month HMCTS ‘was still considering proposed changes to the programme with ministers and the senior judiciary’. If approved, these changes will further hit the scale and timing of savings, the NAO says. Despite this, ‘HMCTS told us it is confident it will achieve the benefits of reform but that it may require a longer timeframe than expected’.

Anyone with experience of major IT-based change-management programmes involving diverse groups of users could have told HMCTS that at the outset.