A scathing report by a group of MPs today raises serious concerns about the government’s ability to achieve its unprecedented court modernisation. The Public Accounts Committee says HM Courts and Tribunals Service has already fallen behind on the £1.2bn project, appears not to understand the impact on court users, and is still unsure exactly what it hopes to achieve.
The committee’s report, published today, states the programme is ‘hugely ambitious’ and on a scale never attempted anywhere in the world – digitising paper-based services, moving cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services.
But there is ‘little confidence’ among committee members that HMCTS can actually make good on its pledges to have the project completed by 2022. Even if ambitions are met, said committee chair Meg Hillier, the result may still be to undermine access to justice and pile more pressure on the police and other public services.
‘Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms,’ said Hillier. ‘The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice. Our report recommends action to address these failings. But even if this programme, or a version of it, gets back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely. There is an old line in the medical profession – ‘the operation was successful but the patient died’.’
The report says HMCTS has been unable to articulate what the transformed justice system will look like and how it will measure if changes are successful.
Despite increasing the programme’s timetable from four to six years, MPs say the insistence on rapid change has left little time for meaningful consultation on the consequences.
By March 2023, HMCTS expects 2.4 million cases a year will be dealt with outside the courtroom, with 5,000 fewer people employed. These changes are expected to save £265m a year through reduced administration and judicial costs.
But the report stressed that one-third of the way through the programme, the Ministry of Justice still does not fully understand the financial implications of what is happening. Extra costs will be incurred through virtual hearings and delays processing divorce applications, and the report asks that ‘cost-shunting’ is better analysed.
The report adds: ‘We remain concerned that the Ministry of Justice is taking on significant amount of change, without a clear sense of its priorities, at a time when it is facing severe financial and demand pressures.’
The committee demands that HMCTS writes to it by January 2019 with progress updates, impact assessments and spending plans.
MPs had been alerted to the potential issues after a report from the National Audit Office earlier this year, which warned of a real danger the government would fail to complete the programme in time and on budget.