HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has “burned through” almost all of the budget for the court modernisation programme with almost half of it as yet incomplete, MPs have found.
They said the organisation still did not understand the impact of the programme or whether it has delivered value for money.
The House of Commons’ public accounts committee (PAC) expressed serious concern that HMCTS was “once again” behind on delivering the reforms, saying that “the long history of resets, revisions and delays” has largely been due to HMCTS’s “consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity of these reforms”.
What was initially in 2016 a four-year project was soon extended to six years, and in 2019 completion was pushed back another year to 2023.
Earlier this year, it was delayed again to March 2024, with complete delivery of its digital case-management system for criminal cases, the Common Platform, expected in March 2025, over a year later than planned.
The PAC’s first report on the reforms since 2019 follows a highly critical analysis by the National Audit Office earlier this year, which said HMCTS had put delivery “at pace” before “sustainable change”.
The PAC observed that, despite having just £120m left of the £1.3bn budget for the programme and reducing its scope several times, HMCTS has still only completed 24 of 44 reform projects.
It was sceptical of HMCTS’s confidence in delivering the rest of the programme within the new timetable, noting that “it gave us the same assurances in 2018, 2019 and 2021”.
HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice “cannot fully assess whether the reforms have provided value for money as they have not captured the full costs of the programme”, the committee went on.
The report noted that, although HMCTS claimed it could complete what was needed with the remaining funding, this was because it had already moved some projects out of the programme into its business-as-usual activities, even though they were not complete and required further work.
“For example, despite HMCTS moving the online portal for divorce cases to business as usual, the portal continues to require improvements.”
The report also warned that HMCTS risked undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system if it did not take swift action on assessments it made in November 2022 on access to justice.
These identified “concerning disparities” in how divorce and probate services performed for different groups, such as ethnic minorities – but HMCTS has not yet acted on the findings.
The PAC also heard of issues with some reformed services resulting in solicitors not receiving necessary notifications and significant delays to cases, and said it was concerned that HMCTS “does not fully understand how reforms are impacting court users, victims, or access to justice”.
The failure to “engage sufficiently with staff and stakeholders” throughout the roll-out of the Common Platform in the criminal courts “has increased the burden on courts and staff already under significant pressure”, it went on.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “Our courts were already stretched thin before the pandemic, and the backlogs now faced pose a real threat to timely access to justice.
“These are services crying out for critical reform, but frustratingly HMCTS’s attempts appear in some cases to be actively hindering its own staff’s ability to carry out their jobs. In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users.
“We would expect HMCTS to appreciate by now that complex reform such as this cannot be properly implemented while failing to engage with those impacted, but our report paints a picture of a service now rushing to introduce its plans following multiple delays.
“HMCTS has now burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete.
“The government told us that the complexity of managing some of these reforms was like ‘redesigning the jet engine while it is in flight’. It must explain how it intends to land the plane.”
The PAC added that the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS “have not demonstrated that lessons learned from this reform programme and their other major projects have been put into practice effectively”.
Seven years into the programme, “HMCTS continues to make many of the same mistakes”, it said.