freshidea -

PAC slams HMCTS justice system transformation programme

HMCTS has consistently underestimated the scale and complexity of the reforms, and criticises the programme, which only has £120m of its £1.3bn budget left with only just over half of projects completed, MPs say

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has issued a damning report on the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) transformation programme, saying it is “seriously concerned” the reform plans are once again behind schedule.

The ambitious £1.3bn programme to transform the justice system through the introduction of several digital and online systems and services has continually been reset, revised and delayed.

One of the main projects, the introduction of Common Platform system, which aims to provide a single, streamlined digital resource for defence professionals, has been beset with problems.

The system aims to replace 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, there have been several issues with the design of the system, and the complete delivery of the digital case management system is now expected in March 2025, more than a year later than planned, while most other reform projects are due to complete in March 2024, three months behind the current schedule. Originally, the programme, which started in 2016, was due to be delivered by 2020.

The latest delivery schedule came after HMCTS decided to reset the programme and extend the timetable for a third time in March 2023, following “increased delivery risk”.

“HMCTS has revised the timetable and altered the scope of its programme several times. This has largely been due to its consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity of its reforms,” the PAC report said, adding that it is “seriously concerned that despite a long history of resets to the programme, HMCTS has had to revise and delay its plans again”.

Technical and design problems

Throughout the roll-out, there have been technical and design problems with Common Platform, creating further issues for court staff, already slammed with huge case backlogs from the pandemic.

In February 2023, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) found that HMCTS had failed to properly evaluate early adopter sites before rolling it out nationally, neglecting to get assurance that the system was ready for deployment.

HMCTS has previously assured the PAC it was planning to do more to ensure staff and stakeholders felt listened to, but said it is “disappointed to hear that these groups still feel that the quality of engagement has been insufficient – particularly during the roll-out of common platform”.

“Users of common platform say that they have often not felt heard,” the report said. “We are concerned that HMCTS does not yet fully understand how reforms are impacting court users, victims or the public’s access to justice.”

Impact of reforms

The PAC added that despite having raised concerns around the service’s lack of understanding of how the reforms impact those who use the courts, HMCTS has “still not shown that it is doing enough to understand this”.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said that courts were already stretched thin before the pandemic, and the backlogs staff now face “pose a real threat to timely access to justice”.

“These are services crying out for critical reform, but HMCTS’s attempts appear in some cases to be actively hindering its own staff’s ability to carry out their jobs. In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users,” she said.

“We would expect HMCTS to appreciate by now that complex reform such as this cannot be properly implemented while failing to engage with those impacted, but our report paints a picture of a service now rushing to introduce its plans following multiple delays.”

It is not just Common Platform experiencing issues. HMCTS has completed several access to justice assessments and identified “concerning disparities” in the way divorce and probate services, two of the new online services introduced as part of the reform, perform for different user groups.

This includes 55% of divorce cases not being completed online and requiring manual interventions, despite the fact that the online portal for divorce cases has now been marked as complete and moved into HMCTS’s business-as-usual activities.

“HMCTS plans to publish some of its findings in Autumn 2023, but it will continue to risk undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system if it does not increase the pace at which it takes action in response to their findings,” the PAC said.

Budget issues

The programme to transform the justice system has a budget of £1.3bn, however, as of December 2022, HMCTS had spent around £1.1bn delivering 24 of 44 projects.

This has left the service with £120m of funding to deliver the rest, as it was unable to retain unspent funding from previous years, the PAC report said.

HMCTS claims to have a clear understanding of what is left to deliver with the rest of the funding “as it has costed most elements left to deliver for each project still underway”.

However, projects that have been moved into “business-as-usual”, still require further work.

HMCTS’s own analysis from April to June 2022, found that unit costs of its fully or partially reformed services were 19% to 146% higher than expected, the NAO report said. “HMCTS undertook some analysis of these services to try to understand this variation,” it stated. “Its analysis indicated that some services were not working as efficiently as expected.”

The PAC has called on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HMCTS to set out their plan on assessing the full cost of the programme, including costs not included in its business case, such as the development of Common Platform interfaces, as well as costs of additional functionality required to get services, such as the online portal for divorce cases, up to standard.  

“HMCTS has not specified how its recent changes to the programme will impact the savings promised, nor can it demonstrate whether reformed services are on track to deliver the required efficiencies,” the PAC report said.

Read more about HMCTS and court reforms:

  • Controversial roll-out of digital case management system continues amid planned strike action by Public and Commercial Services Union because of issues with the system.
  • The Common Platform 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.
  • “Ambitious” timescales and scope for £1.2bn modernisation of services had to be scaled back, says NAO report.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said the service has “now burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete”.

“The government told us that the complexity of managing some of these reforms was like ‘redesigning the jet engine while it is in flight’. It must explain how it intends to land the plane,” she said.

HMCTS has told the PAC that it has identified lessons from the programme, and plan to take them forward.

The committee is concerned that the MoJ and HMCTS still have not demonstrated that lessons learned from the programme, as well as other major projects, have been put into practice.

“The Ministry and HMCTS have similarly given us assurances that they have learnt lessons from both reform and other major programmes in the past,” the PAC report said. “Seven years into the programme, HMCTS continues to make many of the same mistakes.”

    Read more on IT for government and public sector

    Data Center
    Data Management