HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has made “good progress” in transforming some services, but there are still “significant challenges” ahead for the court modernisation programme, the National Audit Office (NAO) said today.
Now around halfway through the programme, HMCTS is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions, the NAO said.
“While HMCTS has kept within budget, this has come at the cost of a reduced scope and lower savings.”
In May 2018, the NAO’s first report said HMCTS faced a “daunting challenge” to deliver the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve the required savings.
“The NAO believes there is a significant risk that HMCTS will not be able to achieve all it wants within the time available,” it said.
Two months later, MPs on the public accounts committee (PAC) said they had “little confidence”  that the programme could be delivered, expressing concern that HMCTS has not adequately considered impact on access to, and fairness of, the justice system with its plans.
Today’s NAO update follows the end of the second phase of the programme in January and appears a little more upbeat.
“The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS will need to manage the tension in delivering reformed services at pace while not risking damage to existing and future services,” it said.
“If HMCTS is to deliver reform, and improve service quality for court users, it will need to be disciplined in keeping every element of its portfolio under control.”
While divorce, civil money claims and probate services have moved fully or partly online, with simplified forms and faster processing, and the first two courts and tribunals service centres have been opened, the NAO observed that some planned services were not yet fully available to the public because HMCTS has made less progress than it had expected to by this stage.
“Our previous report noted that HMCTS was behind schedule and this is still the case. By its own assessment, HMCTS has completed 78% of its milestones for the second stage and 54% of its planned outcomes.
“It had made some progress towards completing a further 26% of these outcomes and had not completed 20%. HMCTS has spent £540m by the end of March 2019.”
The NAO said HMCTS has acted on the concerns they raised last year “by strengthening its approach to stakeholder engagement and improving transparency by publishing more information on progress… It is also working with other organisations to better understand the impact of reform on the wider justice system”.
In early 2019, HMCTS narrowed the reform programme and extended the timetable a year to December 2023.
The report said: “While these changes do not affect the broad objectives of reform, they do impact planned benefits: lifetime savings for the portfolio (to 2028-29) have decreased by £172m to £2,112m, with annual steady state savings now £21m lower per year at £244m and coming a year later in 2024-25.”
At the same time, it noted that some of the savings relied on analytical models predicting theoretical savings arising from process changes.
“It provides incentives for projects to deliver planned savings by removing the equivalent amount from budgets at the start of the year and considers that savings have been achieved if the project delivers to budget.
“However, HMCTS does not check whether all these savings materialised in the way it expected so they cannot all be directly traced to changes delivered through reform. HMCTS has acknowledged that its approach to monitoring savings is still developing and is putting in place a more rigorous approach.”
The NAO also looked at court closures, finding that since the start of estates reform in 2015, 127 courts and tribunals have been closed, of which 114 have been sold, raising £124m. Some 341 sites remain.
“Sale proceeds are expected to provide more than 22% of total reform funding. The bulk of this will come from a small number of high-value sites in central London. Failure to achieve all these sales could have a significant impact on funding of the reform programme.”
However, HMCTS has scaled back its plans for future court closures, and now expects to sell 77 more sites, rather than the previously planned 96, and will leave them until later on in the programme.
“HMCTS recognised that it did not have sufficient evidence to assess changes in demand resulting from reform and is now creating indicators that attempt to measure this. This information will be essential in providing a sound basis for future closures.”
Looking to the future, the NAO said HMCTS needed to better understand the impact of its reforms, and must now “move from designing new services to scaling up implementation and integrating projects across its portfolio”.
The report urged HMCTS to strengthen its monitoring “to provide early warning when things are going off track”, and improve how it measured the benefits of reform, “more clearly demonstrating where savings are coming from”.
It also needed to “better demonstrate how it is monitoring the impact of its reforms on users of the justice system”, and improve transparency of the rationale for future closure proposals, along with providing evidence that reform has reduced demand for physical hearings.
PAC chair Meg Hillier MP said: “A government transformation plan off track and scaled back is a broken record. HM Courts and Tribunal Service has not bucked this trend.
“It must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice.”
In response, HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said: “We are pleased the NAO has recognised the progress we have made towards a more accessible and efficient justice system. More than 300,000 people have now used our online services, and two new service centres are making it easier and quicker for all to access help.
“This is an ambitious and challenging programme but is already making a significant difference. We will continue to listen and learn, working closely with our stakeholders to improve and ensure reform delivers the full benefits to all those who use our justice system.”