Management consultants asked to conduct an independent review of the government's ambitious court reform programme warned the lord chancellor in 2016 that the reforms would fail unless specific risks were tackled, the Gazette has learned.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) prepared a report for then justice secretary Michael Gove in February 2016 following a 'rapid five-week exercise'. The Ministry of Justice has decided to release the report, which was presented internally, after receiving a freedom of information request. The Gazette has learned that the FoI request was made by Transform Justice director Penelope Gibbs, who has persistently been trying to get hold of it for the past two years.

In the report, BCG said the 'breadth of ambition' of the HMCTS reforms 'is unmatched anywhere in the world' and warned that the four-year timetable was overly optimistic, highlighting court reform challenges in other countries. In the Netherlands, e-registry and integrated case management should have been rolled out between 2011 and 2017, but the timetable was extended to 2023. In Denmark, pilots of an integrated court-agency case management system failed.

BCG highlighted a 'paucity of data' to understand the system's users: 'Not enough is known about their precise needs and their legitimate expectations of the justice system... there are gaps especially in the understanding of the digital literacy and likely digital uptake of court users, with a risk that the ambition is too heavily premised on users wanting to move to digital channels, particularly in the criminal system.'

The consultants also worried about the lack of contingency funding, telling Gove that they would typically expect to see 15-30% of resource costs as a contingency for such a programme.

However, the biggest risk to the programme's overall success was the governance structures and culture surrounding the project. Only one out of 10 meetings between the MoJ and HM Courts & Tribunals Service was successful, one interviewee said.

The report reveals: 'In addition to this, interviewees have spoken about (and we have witnessed) a lack of cooperation between HMCTS and the MoJ in relation to the programme. This includes a culture of "finger pointing" among senior leadership and a failure to act and communicate as a joined-up team. Several interviewees believe that the uncooperative behaviour is a result of the fact that incentives of MoJ executives are not aligned with the programme, and that incentives cannot be aligned so long as the vision and priorities of the programme are not clear.'

BCG concludes: 'By comparison to other reforms, the level of ambition is very high, especially for a four-year programme. Operating under the existing governance structures and state of relationships, the programme will not succeed.'

Richard Goodman, HMCTS change director, told the Gazette: 'This report rightly reflected the unprecedented opportunity to reform the justice system, and we acted on its very helpful recommendations - extending the programme’s timescale, investing in user insight and producing a clear joint vision by the then lord chancellor, lord chief justice and senior president of tribunals.

'We have made significant progress since this advice was produced almost three years ago to make a system we care about deeply work better for all who use it. New, easy-to-navigate online services on divorce, probate and small civil money claims are now being used by the public with growing uptake and high satisfaction, and new digital systems and processes are reducing paperwork and duplication for all those working in the system.'

However, in July, the House of Commons public accounts committee echoed BCG's concerns. MPs said extending the timetable to six years 'has already fallen behind, delivering only two-thirds of what it expected to at this stage, and it still has not shared a sufficiently well developed plan of what it is trying to achieve'.

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood was told to write to the committee by January with an assurance about the updated timetable for delivery, and then provide updates every six months.