david_franklin - stock.adobe.com

HMCTS Common Platform roll-out put ‘avoidable pressure’ on courts

The digital case management system was rolled out without adequate assurance it was robust enough to be deployed, and is having a ‘detrimental impact on courts’, the National Audit Office has found

The National Audit Office (NAO) is concerned with the negative impact the controversial roll-out of HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) Common Platform is having on courts across the country.

A report on the justice system reform programme, which includes Common Platform, showed the NAO has serious concerns about the deployment of the system.

“Of most concern is the case management system for criminal courts, Common Platform. HMCTS’s design of the system was beset with problems and its implementation is having a detrimental impact on courts,” the report said.

The Common Platform system aims to provide a single, streamlined digital resource for defence professionals.

It replaces five existing applications with a single one and allows all parties to get digital access to information about a case, such as charges, evidence and results, reducing the need for paper documents, the copying of information from one system to another, as well as manual document handling.

However, the system has been beset with problems, including delays to the roll-out due to technical issues, which have in some cases affected justice outcomes, including 35 people “not fitted with electronic tags when they should have been”, the report said.

The NAO also criticised HMCTS for failing to properly evaluate early adopter sites before rolling it out nationally, neglecting to get assurance that the system was ready for deployment.

“HMCTS did not get sufficient assurance that Common Platform was ready to be introduced to courts. Its own testing strategy review found that it was not sufficiently focused on understanding and mitigating risks,” the report said.

“Although agile projects must check that they meet user needs, HMCTS did not clearly articulate the standards the system would need to meet before the roll-out continued. HMCTS had only partly evaluated one early adopter site before deciding to roll the system out nationally.”

HMCTS began rolling out the system in September 2020 to two early adopter sites, before proceeding with the national roll-out in March 2021. As of November 2022, 76% of criminal courts were using the system. HMCTS plans to complete the programme by December 2023.

HMCTS had set evaluative criteria to meet before rolling out Common Platform to courts nationally, but failed to specify what that meant in practice and how it would judge if the criteria were met.

This means the roll-out has not been straightforward. HMCTS has had to pause the deployment for long periods of time due to performance issues that ended up interfering with the live running of courts, creating inefficiencies, causing stress for staff and undermining trust in the quality of court records. Between March and October 2022, 231 critical incidents affecting users nationally were recorded.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has been critical of the deployment of the system, saying it is having a negative impact on its members and the delivery of justice.

Union members voted for strike action due to the system not being fit for purpose, and in September 2022, the PCS announced that HMCTS had agreed to pause the roll-out until early 2023 as negotiations with the union continued.

However, at the time, an HMCTS spokesperson told Computer Weekly that it would continue with the roll-out. The September pause lasted for two weeks after HMCTS found that the system had failed to send 3,011 important notifications to partner agencies between June 2021 and August 2022.

“It found this happened as the system could not cope with the volume of notifications. HMCTS reviewed all 3,011 of these cases and investigated in more depth the 367 of these failures which it considered could have affected justice outcomes.”

Read more about the justice system reform and Common Platform

The wider justice reform programme, which Common Platform is part of, began in 2016 and was due to be completed in 2020. However, the timescale for the programme was extended by a further two years, before being extended again, and is now due to be completed in December 2023.

In July 2018, the Public Accounts Committee expressed “little confidence” that the programme would be a success, and when the NAO reviewed the programme in September 2019, it called on HMCTS to “better understand the impact of its reforms, including how they are affecting users of the justice system”.  

NAO head Gareth Davies said the justice system reform has been a “complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic”.

He added: “While the programme has continued to progress, the decision to roll out the Common Platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time.

“As HMCTS develops plans to adjust the programme, it is essential that it builds in sufficient time to learn as it goes and promptly address any performance concerns. It must also develop its approach to benefits realisation to secure value for money from the £1.3bn of taxpayers’ money it has invested.”

Commenting on the NAO report, Nick Goodwin, CEO of HMCTS, said delivering a programme of this size in a live environment “is not without its challenges”.

“There are reasons for this: some of them fall outside of our control, such as the pandemic; and some of them are things that we didn’t get right, such as introducing too much change too quickly. We can and will put this right,” he said.

“Common Platform remains a vital cog in the success of reform. It will replace legacy systems that are fragmented and unsustainable, but we recognise the areas of challenge raised in the NAO report having listened to our staff, partners and those using the system, and we have learned from experience how to do things better.”

Read more on IT for government and public sector

Data Center
Data Management