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PAC doubts justice system transformation programme will be a success

Public Accounts Committee says it’s difficult to see how the government’s “extremely challenging" £1.2bn project to overhaul courts through use of technology “will ever work"

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a scathing report on the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) transformation programme, saying it has “little confidence” in its success.

The ambitious £1.2bn 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. 

However, the project is running far behind its intended schedule, and MPs on the PAC said that while the programme is “hugely ambitious”, there is a significant risk HMCTS will fail to deliver the benefits it expects.

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 wider initiative to transform the entire justice system. The programme was initially due to last four years, but was extended to six years due to the complexity.

In a report on the progress of the programme, the PAC said that despite extending the timetable, “HMCTS has already fallen behind, delivering only two-thirds of what it expected”.  

“The common platform programme, a key part of the reforms, is at significant risk of not delivering. The reforms have suffered from poor progress measures and weak governance, the report said, adding that HMCTS has taken steps to improve the governance, but that there is still “a number of external factors that could derail progress, such as the delay in primary legislation and uncertainty over long-term funding”.

The PAC report said the huge changes required have never before been delivered anywhere in the world at such scale and pace. “We have little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme to bring the court system into the modern age,” the report said.

Lack of transparency

HMCTS was also criticised for not being transparent enough with what the overall aim of the programme is.

It said that HMCTS has failed to “articulate clearly what the transformed justice system looks like”, making it difficult for stakeholders to plan for the changes.

“HMCTS was unable to explain what the transformed justice system would look like and how it would measure whether the changes had been delivered successfully,” the report said.

As a result, interested parties feel the changes are being imposed on them, and the fast-paced timescale of the programme also means there is a risk of not allowing enough time to consult and evaluate the programme as it goes on.

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The PAC said it had been told by representatives of the legal profession that they’re concerned the programme is just ploughing ahead without proper impact assessment and that HMCTS is just “paying lip service to engagement, rather than listening to and acting on concerns”.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said the government has “cut corners in its rush to put 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,” she said. “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.”

Some services already delivered

The PAC report follows another report from the National Audit Office (NAO), published in May 2018, which found that although HMCTS has already gone live with several parts of the programme, it was concerned the delays means it won’t be delivered on the scale or to the timetable HMCTS envisions.  

Commenting on the PAC’s report, HMCTS CEO Susan Acland-Hood said it will study the recommendations made in the report, and added that “significant progress is being made to deliver the programme, including new digital services, which have seen high take-up and satisfaction rates”.

“We do recognise the need to engage more actively with our key stakeholders, and this is a key priority over the next phase of reform,” she said.

“This is a challenging programme but we remain confident it is on track to deliver the benefits promised and to help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”

Services already delivered, includes an online claims service, an online system for applying for divorce, piloting video hearings in the tax tribunal, rolling out a new in-court system to record the results of cases digitally, and a service allowing people to track their personal independent payment appeals. 

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