Court modernisation delivers £158m in savings so far

Heaton: Interim evaluation due by summer 2021

The court modernisation programme has realised £158m in “benefits” to date, more than was anticipated, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has revealed.

It is also to create an advisory panel to help ensure that the programme – which will ultimately cost £1bn – achieves its goals.

The figures came in a paper submitted by MoJ permanent secretary Sir Richard Heaton to the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, whose critical July 2018 report on court modernisation required an update by January 2019 on how the impact of changes on people’s access to, and the fairness of, the justice system would be evaluated.

He said that, by the end of 2018-19, the MoJ would have spent £546m – £83m less than the “spending envelope” for the project so far – “and our benefits to date of £158m have exceeded planned levels for this point in the programme”.

The previously stated goal is that, by March 2023, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) should employ 5,000 fewer staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4m cases per year and cut annual spending by £265m.

Savings should come from lower administrative and judicial staff costs, fewer physical hearings and running a smaller estate

Though much of the work to assess the effect of reforms will be undertaken at the individual project level, Sir Richard said an “overarching evaluation” would take place during the course of the reform programme.

To check whether the reforms have ensured fairness and accessibility, the MoJ would seek to answer three principal questions, he said:

  • Has reform altered outcomes (fairness e.g. case/hearing outcomes, sentencing and financial awards)?
  • Has reform changed the ability of users to pursue a case effectively (access to justice e.g. ability and speed at which court users can access and pursue a case)?
  • Has reform had an effect on costs including those incurred by those who use courts and tribunals (e.g. travel costs, costs of time wasted)?

The overarching evaluation is at the scoping stage, which Sir Richard said should be completed by the end of this spring, along with the appointment of the advisory panel.

Sir Richard said: “Our intention is to draw on a wide range of external expertise, including academics and legal practitioners, as well as those who have practical experience in the delivery of significant reform programmes.

“The panel’s role will be to ensure that analysts and ministers benefit from a wide range of external, expert advice on how the evaluation can best be undertaken.

“We will also be seeking the views of the senior judiciary to explore how we can make the best use of the expertise they can bring to the evaluation.”

The paper identified two specific challenges with the evaluation: establishing baselines of pre-reform performance, and controlling external factors which may also have an impact on the performance of the courts and tribunals, such as policy changes.

The official promised a further update in July 2019 and said the aim was to complete an interim evaluation by summer 2021.

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