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Court reforms may not be completed in time, PAC warns

Hillier: Revised schedule appears over-optimistic

The government’s court modernisation programme may not be completed by the deadline of 2023, the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) has warned in its latest report on the project.

The committee described the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) as “struggling to deliver all it promised” and said it was “not doing enough to understand the impact on court and tribunal users” before pressing ahead.

The PAC said this was particularly the case with court closures.

In March this year ,HMCTS announced that the programme, which was extended from four to six years before it was signed off, would be delayed by a further year to 2023.

Giving evidence to the PAC last month [1], Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HMCTS, and Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), insisted that the reforms would be delivered on time.

However, the PAC said in a report published yesterday ahead of Parliament being dissolved for the election that it was “not convinced that it is possible for HMCTS to deliver everything promised in the current timeframe”.

The committee said that, at the time of its earlier report [2] at the end of the first stage of the project, HMCTS had “fully completed around two-thirds of what it planned” but this time, at the end of the second stage, it had completed only just over half.

“HMCTS opted to add an extra year to make the reforms more deliverable but this may not be enough.

“HMCTS and the ministry expressed confidence that they will meet the new timetable, despite acknowledging that the fast pace of reforms is a key risk.

“But current and past delays, and the increasing scale and complexity of what is still to be done, make the timetable seem over‐optimistic.

“Enabling legislation continues to be delayed, some users remain unconvinced of the value of the changes and HMCTS needs to balance the tension between taking time to understand the impact of changes and the need to maintain momentum.

“In this context, HMCTS and the ministry cannot rule out further extensions to the timetable.”

The PAC said HMCTS should write to the committee once it had finalised its next business case “to set out the proposed alternative arrangements if plans cannot be achieved within current timeframes, including what projects could be eliminated, reduced or delayed if reforms come under further pressure”.

The PAC also said HMCTS risked undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system by “proceeding with its reforms without sufficiently demonstrating it understands the impact on justice outcomes or people”.

The justice select committee warned last week [3] in its report on the reforms, that, by appearing to make access to justice ancillary to the programme rather than central, “the most vulnerable in our society” could be excluded.

The PAC said HMCTS had not fully explored the impact of video hearings on defendants or how online services could disadvantage users with limited digital skills or legal literacy. The MoJ’s interim evaluation of the reforms in 2021 was “too long to wait”.

The committee recommended that HMCTS and MoJ should write to it by July 2020, explaining how evaluation would influence implementation of future services.

The PAC strongly criticised HMCTS over its handling of court closures, saying it “did not adequately consider” the impact on access to justice or on vulnerable users.

It called on HMCTS to “set out what it will do to make sure that the needs of vulnerable users are considered in future closure decisions”.

The committee said the courts service had improved the way it communicated with stakeholders, such as the Law Society and Bar Council, but “representatives from the legal profession do not feel listened to”.

It recommended that HMCTS explain how it would shift engagement from “broadcasting information to genuinely listening and responding to feedback”.

The PAC said HMCTS could not “clearly demonstrate” the link between “claimed savings” and the reforms it had introduced.

The revised target for savings was from the reforms was £244m a year, and HMCTS claimed to have saved £133m already from “administrative, judicial and property efficiencies”, but HMCTS was hampered by its “limited understanding of precisely what its staff are doing”.

The committee asked HMCTS to write by May 2020 with “a plan demonstrating how it intends to measure and monitor benefits arising from reform”.

The PAC warned that the MoJ faced a “potentially huge spike in demand” from the government’s plan to recruit 20,000 more police officers over the next three years.

“Sustained cuts to the Ministry’s funding have put services under strain. While the ministry received a 4.9% increase in the 2019‐10 spending round, it is not clear if this will be enough to match new demands.”

The committee recommended that the MoJ report back in six months, setting how it plans to “maintain and improve services” in the face of rising demand.

PAC chair Meg Hillier MP 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.”

Ms Acland-Hood said the report “reflects the ambitious and challenging nature of the programme to modernise our courts and tribunals but recognises the progress being made”.

She added: “We also recognise the need to redouble our efforts to listen to and engage with all those who work within the justice system. The committee acknowledges improvements in this area but rightly says there is more to do to win hearts and minds…

“Improving access to justice is at the heart of our programme and we will continue to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it progresses.”

Separately, HMCTS announced yesterday that more than 100,000 civil money claims have been issued since the digital service went live in March 2018, and has recorded 88% user satisfaction.