Spending watchdogs have warned courts chiefs of a real danger that they will fail to complete their digital courts revolution in time and on budget. In a comprehensive progress report published today, the National Audit Office says HM Courts & Tribunals Services faces a ‘daunting challenge’ in meeting target for technological and cultural change.
The Ministry of Justice wants to vastly reduce the number of physical court hearings, cut its workforce by roughly 50% and introduce national centres to handle all centralised case management and administration. The six-year project is due to be completed in 2022.
The NAO notes that the government has already extended the original completion date by two years with no change in the £1.2bn budget.
Even with an extended deadline, the timescale is still shorter than the time taken to complete smaller programmes in other countries.
Following a series of interviews with key figures, court visits and studies of internal HMCTS documents, the NAO also finds:
- HMCTS has made less progress than expected, and by September 2017 it had fully completed 62% of planned outcomes.
- The business case depends on approval from HM Treasury to plug a potential £177m funding gap.
- HMCTS has developed high-level ‘target operating models’ but stakeholders still do not understand how reformed services will work in practice.
- Delays in vital primary legislation going through parliament could either delay or limit the government’s ambitions.
The report also notes that the benefits claimed so far by HMCTS exceed expectations and risk putting pressure on its ability to maintain current services. In echoes of the unintended consequences of legal aid cuts, the NAO adds, there is also the risk that HMCTS makes changes before it understand the system-wide effects.
The report says: ‘HMCTS faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the administration of justice, and achieve the savings required. It has responded to early concerns by extending the timetable and improving its governance and programme management. But there is a long way to go to achieve the planned transformation and overall HMCTS is behind where it expected to be at this stage.’
The NAO urges ministers to engage more with affected parties, provide greater transparency and look more closely at the potential consequences of the planned reforms.
Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HMCTS, said the NAO had rightly highlighted the ambitious and transformational nature of the work, and that her organisation was committed to addressing the issues raised.
She said: ‘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.’
Examples of changes already effected include the online civil money claims services and online divorce service both being made available to the public, and the national roll-out of a new in-court system to record the results of cases digitally.
Transformation: the big numbers
Annual expected savings from the HMCTS change portfolio from 2023-24 onwards.
Planned reduction in the number of HMCTS full-time equivalent staff by March 2023.
Planned reduction in the number of cases held in physical courtrooms each year.
Total planned cost of implementing the changes.