NAO castigates “rushed” court modernisation programme

Courts: Benefits of reform not clear

The National Audit Office (NAO) has panned the government’s court modernisation programme, saying HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) put delivery “at pace” before “sustainable change”.

“HMCTS must now focus on achieving the anticipated benefits of the reforms,” the NAO said.

“It must get a better grasp of the outstanding improvements it needs to make across the programme and prioritise its remaining funding on those which maximise both the financial and wider benefits.

“Failure to do this effectively will pose a risk to the value for money of the programme.”

In a progress report, the NAO said that “of most concern” was the “delayed” and “unpopular” digital and case management system for criminal cases, Common Platform.

This had actually placed more pressure on the system, it said.

On the civil side, new data revealed that ethnic minority users of probate and divorce services take longer to resolve their cases.

HMCTS told the NAO it was “confident it will achieve the benefits of reform but that it may require a longer timeframe than expected”.

In its last progress report, in September 2019, the NAO said HMCTS had made “good progress” in transforming some services, but warned that there were “significant challenges” ahead.

With the programme due to finish at the end of this year, and only 24 of its 44 projects completed, the NAO’s new report said: “HMCTS did not clearly specify the detailed scope and functionality of individual projects at the outset and it is not clear that it has a comprehensive view of the outstanding work needed to complete the programme.”

Despite increasing the programme’s budget by around 10% in 2021 to reduce delivery risk, HMCTS did not expect it could deliver the programme to its current timetable and full scope.

HMCTS had spent £1.1bn of its £1.3bn budget by the end of last year, with only £120m available due to previous underspends which could not be recovered.

It was “unclear if HMCTS can deliver the outstanding scope with the remaining funding”, and the service “was still considering proposed changes to the programme with ministers and the senior judiciary” just last month.

Meanwhile, expected savings have decreased since 2019, with lifetime savings reduced by £310m to £2bn, and annual savings cut by 7% to £220m and forecast to start a year later, in 2025-26.

The NAO found that HMCTS has “a limited understanding” of whether its reforms were delivering intended efficiencies.

While it recorded a net total of £311m in savings from running costs between 2014-15 and 2021-22, HMCTS acknowledged that these figures may not be fully attributable to the reforms.

Indeed, costs of running many services were higher than pre-reform and the service lacked routine data on how efficiently reformed services were operating.

Some services were not yet operating as expected. For example, many online divorce and probate cases needed manual interventions by court staff despite the relevant project being marked as complete.

Following “repeated delays”, the priority for HMCTS had been on “delivering its reforms at pace rather than embedding sustainable change”, the NAO said.

Common Platform generated the most concern. “HMCTS’s design of the system was beset with problems and its implementation is having a detrimental impact on courts.

“While the system has undoubtedly improved since its initial rollout, remaining technical issues are creating inefficiencies and introducing risk to courts and the wider system.”

The NAO said the Common Platform “was delayed and is unpopular with staff, causing stress and sometimes interfering with the smooth running of live court cases”.

HMCTS found in September last year that the system had “failed to notify partner agencies of required actions in approximately 3,000 cases, impacting justice outcomes in a small number of instances”.

For example, IT problems meant that criminals were not fitted with electronic tags in 35 cases where they should have been.

“Users such as court clerks and legal advisers told us that they cannot see how HMCTS has responded to issues because there is no formal feedback mechanism. They expressed frustration with the lack of transparency and communication on how their issues are addressed.”

HMCTS had to write off £23m of the money spent developing Crown Prosecution Service functionality for the platform.

More generally, the NAO said, each new service must now undergo an access to justice assessment, which analysed how access to the hearings, decisions and sentences varied by user groups and case type.

Four have so far been completed and identified issues for some user groups. The assessments of probate and divorce services “found that cases from ethnic minority users took longer to resolve”.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented: “This has been a complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic.

“While the programme has continued to make progress, the decision to rollout the Common Platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time.”

An HMCTS spokeswoman said: “We are modernising our services and replacing out-of-date systems so they are fit for the 21st century and the digital services we have introduced have been used successfully over two million times.

“We are implementing the NAO’s recommendations – some of which are already in place – to improve our new digital services and will continue to listen and respond to feedback from court users as we roll them out further.”

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