In a new report out this week, the Committee highlights how HMCTS has already extended its timetable from four to six years, has failed to effectively engage with stakeholders and has not shared a sufficiently well developed plan.
By March 2023, HMCTS has said that it expects that 2.4 million cases per year will be dealt with outside physical courtrooms and that it will employ 5,000 fewer staff. It expects that by introducing new technologies and by modernising processes it will save £265 million a year.
However, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have said that HMCTS needs to ensure that the savings expected from these reforms are genuine rather than the consequence of “shunning costs” to other parts of the justice system, such as the police prison service or the Crown Prosecution Service.
Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP, said:
Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. 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'.
It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services.
Government must engage properly with these challenges and explain how it will shepherd this programme through the upheaval taking place across the justice system.
Poorly thought through
So, what are the reforms exactly? The aim, according to documentation from HMCTS, is to bring much for the courts and tribunals process online. It states:
Over time, the work of the courts and tribunals will use online, virtual and traditional hearings as best meets the circumstances of the case. As new technologies bed down, we anticipate that more and more cases or parts of cases will be carried out virtually or online.
In certain circumstances, of course, justice will require that parties, their advisers and judges conduct hearings in physical courtrooms.
Meanwhile, those who use our courts and tribunals – including legal professionals – should expect two significant developments. The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.
However, the Public Accounts Committee, as stated above, has little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this ambitious programme. It states that while other countries have attempted elements of what HMCTS is doing, no other country has attempted to change its whole system at this scale or pace.
It adds, that whilst HMCTS has already extended its timetable from four to six years, it has already fallen behind, delivering only two-thirds of what is expected.
HMCTS, according to MPs on the Committee, has failed to articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like, which limits stakeholders’ ability to plan for, and influence the changes. The report out this week states:
Organisations representing users of the justice system told us that although the reforms presented many opportunities, they had a poor understanding of what HMCTS is aiming for and how the new system will work in practice. Resolution, the Magistrates Association and the Bar Council told us that they were frustrated with the quality of HMCTS’s engagement with them so far and said they felt informed rather than always consulted or meaningfully engaged. is lack of transparency means that interested parties feel that changes are being imposed rather than co- created.
Furthermore, HMCTS has not adequately considered how the reforms will impact access to, and the fairness of, the justice system for people using it, many of whom, according to the Committee, are vulnerable. It states that HMCTS has already closed 258 courts between 2010/11 and 2017, before having moved those services online, meaning people have to travel further to access justice. The report adds:
Although HMCTS assured us that it is testing digital services, like online forms, with users, this does not amount to a proper evaluation of the wider impacts of the changes in the real world. We are concerned that HMCTS told us a great deal about processes and products and not enough about how the changes might a ect people. Moving services online without assessing the impact could have serious implications for users of the justice system.
As highlighted by MPs on the Committee, this is a worrying update considering that it is likely to impact vulnerable citizens. Lack of engagement with users and lifting and shifting services online sends alarm bells ringing in my head. Combined with the financial pressures facing the Ministry of Justice, this could spell recipe for disaster. A worry, when you consider the courts are a critical pillar of our society.