The government will not make a final decision on funding for the courts modernisation programme until the new year, it has emerged.
Lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon confirmed last week that a business case had been presented to the Treasury in October for securing the required funds to finish the programme by 2023. This is a year later than originally planned.
Several aspects of the programme, commenced in 2016, remain unfinished after four years, including the switch to a paperless system in the county court. But the IT upgrade was not mentioned in the chancellor’s spending review last month, raising doubts about the Treasury’s enthusiasm for committing more money.
At his annual press conference last week, Lord Burnett said the decision had been taken to defer consideration of the business case until February, with the courts recovery plan post-lockdown given a higher priority in Whitehall.
The lord chief justice said: ‘I should make absolutely clear my view that the continued funding of the reform and modernisation programme is absolutely vital to the efficient functioning of the courts, and it is also my view that modernisation and recovery are not separate matters; they are two sides of the same coin.’
He cited the digitisation of the family court as an example of the significant efficiency savings that modernisation could bring, and said failing to provide the money to see that through to the end would be an ‘act of self-harm’.
Similarly in the county court, which deals with 90%-95% of all civil cases in England and Wales, Lord Burnett decried the status quo of a paper-based system involving filling out long forms, wheeling them around courts and ‘vast files dumped’ on judges’ desks.
He added: ‘All of that is grotesquely inefficient and the digitisation of the county court, which has yet to commence, is again an absolutely vital step to ensuring both efficiency but also recovery.’