HMCTS sets out reform ambitions as impact assessment begins

Heaton: Over-arching evaluation will focus on vulnerable people

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has outlined ambitious milestones for court reform, including fully digital “journeys” for litigants in family public law and asylum and immigration appeals cases.

It also aims to complete the online transformation of money claims up to £10,000 by next May.

In supplying new milestones for the next year to the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, HMCTS was responding to the committee’s July 2018 recommendation that it provide six-monthly progress reports on the reforms.

This was in the context of the committee casting severe doubt on the feasibility of the reforms.

The new May 2020 milestones committed to in crime included preparing some Crown Courts for the test roll-out of the common platform – an online ‘hub’ to be accessed jointly by the police, Crown Prosecution Service, HMCTS, and lawyers – and starting a pilot of new technology for video remand hearings.

HMCTS will also procure supporting technology for more effective and efficient listing and scheduling of cases.

In January, HMCTS supplied 15 milestones to be met by July, and said it has met 11 of them, including fully-digital services for probate and divorce applicants.

It further said it had reached its benchmark of satisfaction remaining at or above three out of four users of civil, family and tribunal services.

Milestones not met included a digital mediation ‘opt-out’ pilot for cases up to £300, which had been delayed pending rule changes to allow the delegation of work to legal advisers.

Others not met included the completion of pilots for video hearings in civil and family cases in Manchester and Birmingham, which HMCTS said would be evaluated by “independent academics upon completion”.

Also in line for independent evaluation were pilots of flexible operating hours, starting on 2 September.

Meanwhile, a high-level advisory panel of experts has met to consider how best to conduct an over-arching evaluation of the government’s £1bn court reform programme, expected to report within two years.

The evaluation of the court reforms as a whole is in addition to smaller evaluations of individual projects.

It follows criticisms by MPs and others about a lack of knowledge of how the reforms will impact in particular on vulnerable groups, the ‘digitally excluded’, and litigants-in-person.

In a letter to the PAC and also sent to the justice select committee, which is separately investigating the reforms, MoJ permanent secretary Sir Richard Heaton said the panel consisted of academics and policy experts with expertise in criminal, civil and family jurisdictions, and in policy evaluation and research.

It had met for the first time in May and was expected to meet two or three times a year. The membership was not defined, but a potential list appended to the letter included several eminent academics such as professors Hazel Genn and Cheryl Thomas of University College, London.

However, the panel’s terms of reference made it clear it had a “purely advisory role” and its advice could be ignored by ministers “when necessary”.

Sir Richard said “external providers”, such as “academic consortia or independent research agencies” were currently being commissioned to do research for the evaluation in order to ensure it was “objective and independent”.

He added the evaluation would “look at the effects of the reform programme on vulnerable people and whether it is different to other users”, focusing particularly on “the impact of the reforms on vulnerable people”.

He intended it would report by summer 2021.

The court reform programme is scheduled to be completed by 2023, a year later than originally slated.

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