Brit spending watchdog questions where savings will come from in court digitisation reforms

You better make arrangements for missing deadlines, says Public Accounts Committee

Another week, another damning report about Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service's (HMCTS) modernisation programme – this time from UK government spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee.

HMCTS is now three years into its ambitious £1.2bn programme to modernise the courts, which plan to change the way people access justice by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services.

The department is planning to close a further 77 courts in the next phase of reform, having already closed 127 since 2015.

HMCTS expects to save £244m a year once the changes are complete. So far it claims to have saved £133m from administrative, judicial and property efficiencies.

However, the progress report today concluded that HMCTS "cannot clearly demonstrate the link between where savings come from and the reforms it has introduced". It recommended that HMCTS writes to the committee by the start of its next phase (May 2020) with a plan demonstrating how it intends to measure and monitor benefits arising from reform.

The programme's completion date recently moved back a further year to 2023, but the report noted that reforms are still continuing to fall behind schedule. "We are not convinced that it is possible for HMCTS to deliver everything promised in the current time frame," it said, adding that HMCTS should set out its proposed alternative arrangements if plans cannot be achieved.

"Despite its confidence that the new timetable would be met, HMCTS explained that one of the biggest risks of the programme was maintaining the momentum of the rollout. Furthermore, the common platform, which HMCTS called the 'riskiest part of the programme' will not be rolled out until the second half of 2020.

The £280m Common Platform Programme – the digital case-handling system intended to join up the case management process across HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service – has been beset with problems for the last two years, as exclusively revealed by The Register.

Elsewhere, HMCTS has already cancelled its £58m Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP) intended to upgrade the systems used to enforce court orders, such as penalties and compensation, due to "budget pressures".

It follows a separate report just last week by the Justice Select Committee slamming the technology behind the modernisation plans and a report last month by the National Audit Office into delays around its digitisation projects.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: "HMCTS's ambitious modernisation programme continues to slip despite an extra year added to a much extended timetable while the revised schedule appears over-optimistic.

"Proposed increases in police numbers and changes to sentencing could lead to a huge spike in demand as more people are prosecuted, affecting justice services already under considerable strain.

"HMCTS must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice which would undermine public confidence in the fairness of the justice system."

An HMCTS spokesman told The Reg: "This report reflects the ambitious nature of our reform programme but rightly acknowledges there is more to be done. Together with the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary, we will carefully consider how we can use its findings to inform our future work, and respond fully in due course." ®

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