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Justice system transformation sees delays and reduction of scope

“Ambitious” timescales and scope for £1.2bn modernisation of services had to be scaled back, says NAO report

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has made some progress in its £1.2bn digital transformation, but has had to scale back its plans, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

The plan to reform the justice system, aimed at making it simpler and cheaper to run, is now in its second phase and has achieved some success, but the report said the programme has had to review its “ambitious” initial aims.

Some new online services have been delivered under the transformation plan – such as bringing divorce, civil money claims and probate services fully or partly online, with simplified forms and faster processing – but some services are still not available because HMCTS has taken longer than expected to finish them.

“HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services, but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions,” said NAO head Gareth Davies.

“The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.”

Davies said lifetime savings to the taxpayer from the project have now fallen by £172m to £2.1bn.

By January this year, HMCTS had completed only 78% of the project’s second-stage milestones. The reduction of scope of the wider reforms also meant the service had to cancel two projects and extend the reform timetable by a year until December 2023.

This means the plan will now take seven years, following a previous extension of the timescale from four to six years after scrutiny before the programme formally began in 2016.

Read more about innovation in the justice system

By the end of March 2019, the programme had spent £540m, which, according to the report, is less than expected – because the delays in completing projects have meant that fewer staff than expected have left, requiring fewer redundancy payments.

According to the NAO, as HMCTS enters the third stage of its reforms, it must move from designing new services to accelerating their implementation.

“HMCTS needs to better understand the impact of its reforms, including how they are affecting users of the justice system,” the report noted.

The courts and tribunals systems should do this by publishing its data on the effects of court closures, said the NAO, while using feedback on how new services are being received to inform the development of future reforms.

In July 2018, another NAO report said the justice system reforms would be “extremely challenging” and expressed “little confidence” that it would be a success.

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