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Justice system transformation programme faces 'daunting challenge', says NAO

Government’s £1bn project to overhaul courts through use of technology has hit delays, with unresolved funding gaps and “significant risk” that it won’t deliver on time, NAO report finds

The HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) transformation programme has not progressed as expected, a National Audit Office (NAO) report has found.  

The ambitious £1bn programme to overhaul the courts through the use of technology aims to introduce online services, digital case files and use video technology in court hearings through a common platform, allowing the sharing of information between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. 

According to HMCTS, it has already gone live with an online civil money claims service and a new system for applying for divorce online, and it is currently testing a new probate system.

The NAO said it is pleased with what has already been delivered, but it is concerned the programme’s delays will lead to it not being delivered on the scale or to the timetable the HMCTS envisions.

“HMCTS faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the administration of justice, and achieve the savings required,” said the NAO, adding that HMCTS has made “less progress overall than it had expected to at this stage” and has already had to revise its timetable.

In 2016, it commissioned a review which found the changes the programme is planning to make are well beyond what’s been done in other countries, and as a result HMCTS changed its timescale and the scope of the programme.

“The scale of the challenge is increasing and the programme is under significant pressure to meet what is still a demanding timetable,” the NAO found.

“The government’s record of transforming public services suggests the overall benefits of the changes are likely to be smaller than expected and will take longer to achieve.”

The report also pointed out that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA) review recently concluded that the “successful delivery of the project was in doubt, and that there were major risks and issues” in several areas, but that the programme leadership was aware and taking action to deal with it.

Funding issues

In 2014, the Ministry of Justice announced a five-year £270m programme to update and replace technology used in courts and tribunals across the UK. In 2016, that became part of the wider initiative to transform the entire justice system.

As well as issues around delays and risks to the delivery of the programme, it is also suffering from financial issues.

“There are unresolved funding gaps, and trying to fit savings around spending commitments and demand pressures could undermine services,” the report said.

“HMCTS estimates there will be a funding shortfall of £61m in future years, assuming that HM Treasury agrees that all previous years’ underspends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the funding gap could be £177m.”

NAO head Amyas Morse said the programme “has improved its approach, but overall it is behind where it expected to be and significant risks remain”.  

“Not only could these delay improvements being delivered on time, the tight timetable could also force HMCTS to make changes before fully understanding the consequences for the justice system. HMCTS must continue to adapt its approach if it hopes to successfully deliver a modern justice system that works better for everyone and achieve necessary savings for the taxpayer,” said Morse.

HMCTS CEO Susan Acland-Hood said the NAO’s report was “helpful and constructive” and highlights the challenges in delivering the ambitious programme”.

“We are pleased that the NAO acknowledges our early progress, and its recommendations are already helping to strengthen the way we run the programme. We are confident, therefore, that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it,” she said.

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