HM Courts & Tribunals Service shelved a digital system for welfare benefit appeals after it emerged that bringing a case through the system would cost significantly more in resources than if the case was heard conventionally, the Gazette can reveal. 

The finding appears in an evaluation document for the Continuous Online Resolution (COR) pilot, part of HMCTS's reform programme. The document was provided to Jo Hynes, a research fellow at legal pressure group Public Law Project, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Continuous online resolution software was tested with a small number of Personal Independence Payment appellants between July 2019 and February 2020 to enable them to engage directly with the tribunal online instead of having to travel to attend a hearing.

Evaluation found a ‘very positive perception’ of the service among those whose appeals were decided in COR. However, under the pilot selection criteria, ‘very few’ appeals were suitable for resolution under the new system.

The document says: ‘Notwithstanding its reception by appellants who used the service, it also needs to be recognised that COR in its pilot form, does not offer great value for money. Bringing a case before a panel in COR costs approximately six times more than through a conventional hearing in terms of admin resource, and over twice as much in terms of judicial resource due to higher rates of adjournment and additional judicial activity at the sift stage.’

Should COR be developed further, the document lists nine points that need to be addressed.

These include advice from User Inclusion and Engagement Team colleagues ‘that exclusion of appellants with interpreters is potentially discriminatory and unlawful’, Also, how represented cases can be resolved through COR ‘as this has already been the subject of concerns raised by the Litigants in Person Engagement Group and is likely to continue to attract attention among welfare advocacy groups’.

The Ministry of Justice told the Gazette that the evaluation was undertaken internally. The document was summarised to stakeholders. In view of the findings, a decision was made not to undertake further development of COR. The ministry said it recognises the demand for online conversation with the tribunal and is exploring ways to engage with appellants and respondents.

Dr Joe Tomlinson, Public Law Project's research director, said: ‘This evaluation is the biggest red flag yet that the approach taken by HMCTS in implementing reformed digital services is not working as well as expected. The evaluation points to a fundamental over-optimism about the ability of technology to slot seamlessly into existing infrastructure, and reflects concerns that were raised going into the reform programme about lack of evidence and the viability of selling off court buildings before digital services were proven to be effective.’

Tomlinson welcomed the project’s honest evaluation but was concerned that the document was uncovered through a FoI request. ‘HMCTS needs to build trust in the reform programme and this is not helped by the lack of transparency,’ he said.