HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has come under fire for failing to assess the impact of its court reforms and adopting a “carry on regardless” approach.
Giving evidence to MPs on the public accounts committee (PAC), barrister Sam Townend said that not only were the “overall impacts” of the reforms not being properly assessed, but there were “not even measures in place” to assess them.
The session followed the National Audit Office’s recent update on the progress of the modernisation programme. This said that HMCTS has made “good progress” in transforming some services, but there were still “significant challenges” ahead.
Mr Townend, a member of the Bar Council’s legal services committee, said everyone knew that HMCTS “had trouble with staff churn” and this was partly to blame for the lack of consultation on court reform.
HMCTS was “often saying the same thing it said two years ago, but to different people on the same sorts of groups”. Although “communicating what they have decided to do” has improved, he said the Bar Council was not involved in designing the new services.
As an example, Mr Townend cited the civil courts video hearing pilot, which involved a “self-selecting” group of fewer than 10 final hearings and from which it was “impossible” to reach any conclusions.
Mr Townsend said the Bar Council did not believe “overall impacts” were being properly assessed. “There seems to be a decision to carry on regardless.”
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, told the committee that solicitors had a “slightly different experience”, in that there had been “reasonably good” engagement with HMCTS on divorce petitions and other online civil proceedings.
However, when it came to hearings, he said it was vital that “justice outcomes” were evaluated along with “process outcomes”.
He said research in the USA on video hearings had shown that where judges and decision-makers engaged with people over a video link, they had a “lower degree of empathy” than when dealing with them face-to-face, resulting in “harsher decisions and harsher sentences”.
Mr Miller said the NAO had highlighted a “massive increase” in the proportion of the population who, following the court closures, now lived at least 20 miles from their nearest court.
He said there was “a lot of anecdotal evidence” that the result was that people simply did not turn up, leading to ineffective hearings.
“We can see no evidence that this is being properly analysed with data gathered to find out what is happening, so that we know what the impact of this is and how it impacts on the overall savings being made from these closures.”
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, agreed that there was “cause for concern” about outcomes.
“We do not know because data is not collected and projects are piloted where the decision, in principle, to go ahead has already been made, whereas the case for their efficacy is yet to be made.”
Mr Ben-Cnaan said it was now clear that “much of the general shape or contours of the transformation programme” had been decided by early 2016, when the Boston Consulting Group was looking into it for former Lord Chancellor Michael Gove.
He said that engagement groups at that time were more geared towards “communicating changes or tinkering around the edges” than discussing how to best to achieve change.
“I could go on, but the basic point is that a lot of engagement has been around informing stakeholders, in the expectation that they will get with the programme.”
Penelope Gibbs, director of pressure group Transform Justice, said the court reforms were “very innovative” but untested.
“They have had stakeholder engagement groups, but they do not conform to any model of open policy processes. For people who have been involved in those stakeholder engagement groups, it is not clear why anybody has been invited, why somebody else has not been invited, what the remit of the group is and what its result is.
“People have been on those groups and they have been disbanded. There have been no published reports of any meetings and the people on them are not clear whether they were just there to be listened to or if there has been some other output.”
Ms Gibbs said there was no replacement for “proper research, of which there has been very little”.
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP said the PAC would produce a report after a further evidence session later this week with representatives of HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice.