MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee have once again criticised HM Courts & Tribunals Service for falling behind on its ambitious programme to modernise the courts and change the way people access justice, by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services.
This is the second report to be issued by the committee in the past year and a half. The Committee’s previous findings in mid-2018 stated that there was little confidence that the programme could be completed within the stated timetable. And although that timetable was extended, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is still struggling to deliver on its promises.
The report out today also notes that recent government promises to increase police numbers could well result in an increased demand for court and justice services, which will only place the reforms under more pressure.
HMCTS is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. In 2016, HMCTS established a six‐year (now extended to seven), £1.2 billion change programme to modernise and upgrade the courts and tribunals system.
The reforms aim to alter the way criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals operate by introducing new technology, working practices and changing the way HMCTS uses its buildings and staff. By 2023, HMCTS expects that 2.4 million cases per year will be dealt with outside physical courtrooms and it will employ 5,000 fewer staff.
HMCTS expects to save £244 million a year from these changes, which will come from lower administration and judicial costs, fewer physical hearings and running a smaller court estate.
The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said:
HMCTS ambitious modernisation programme continues to slip despite an extra year added to a much extended timetable while the revised schedule appears over-optimistic.
Proposed increases in police numbers and changes to sentencing could lead to a huge spike in demand as more people are prosecuted, affecting justice services already under considerable strain.
HMCTS must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice which would undermine public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.
The Committee notes that many of the concerns raised in its previous report have not been addressed and that most notably it remains unclear how the reforms are affecting access to justice, especially for vulnerable people.
The report out today states that HMCTS “has not when it is doing enough to understand the impact on court and tribunal users before pressing ahead with reforms, increasing the risk that justice outcomes might be affected, particularly with the court closure programme”.
For example, HMCTS has closed 127 courts since 2015, yet has produced no formal evaluation of the impact. However, the Committee notes that closures have made it more difficult for people to access justice, particularly those with disabilities, on low income, or living in rural areas.
As a result, the Committee has drawn a number of conclusions and made a number of recommendations to HMCTS. These include:
To date, the reforms have focused on evaluating how new technology is working rather than the impact on people or justice outcomes. HMTCS should write to the Committee by July 2020 demonstrating how future evaluations will influence the implementation of future services, including an assessment of how reforms are affecting justice outcomes. It should map out the links between planned evaluations and its reform delivery plan to demonstrate how learning will influence future development of services.
HMCTS is planning to close a further 77 courts in the next phase of its reforms. Going forward, it should set out what it will do to make sure the needs of vulnerable users are considered in future closure decisions.
HMCTS should set out what it will do to shift its engagement with key stakeholders from broadcasting information to genuinely listening and responding with feedback. It should provide examples where this engagement has resulted in change.
The Committee has said that HMCTS cannot demonstrate claimed savings are attributable to reforms, so taxpayers cannot be condiment they are getting what was promised. As a result, it should write to the Committee by the start of its next phase (May 2020) with a plan demonstrating how it intends to measure and monitor benefits arising from reform.
Finally, given that the Ministry of Justice is facing a potentially huge spike in demand from changes to sentencing and increased funding for the police, it should report back to the Committee in six months, setting out how it plans to maintain and improve services in the face of rising demand in the justice system.