“We bit off more than we could chew” with court reforms, minister admits

Freer: MoJ didn’t have the skills to manage the court modernisation programme

Justice minister Mike Freer has admitted to MPs that the government “bit off more than we could chew” with its £1.3bn court modernisation programme.

Mr Freer also told the justice select committee that he expected the current backlog of 69,000 probate cases to fall to around 30,000 by September.

Responding to a question on the impact of the court reform programme on the Probate Service, which is investigating probate delays, Mr Freer said the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had scaled back the entire reform programme.

“I think it would honest to be say that we bit off more than we could chew. Now we’ve gone back to making sure that core activities are supported by the reform programme before we do anything more adventurous.”

Later in the session, he added: “I can understand why the department [the MoJ] wanted to build a bespoke all-singing, all-dancing answer to the universe.

“It is also fair to say that it was far too much, too quickly and there was too little early adoptive testing.”

Mr Freer said it was also “fair to say that I’m not sure the department had the skills to manage” what was not just the introduction of a new IT system, but business re-engineering at the same time.

“The danger is that you put the IT on a pretty ropey system. Normally you change the system and put the IT on top of that.”

Mr Freer said that following “all the criticism” from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, which in the latter case was “perhaps a bit harsh”, the MoJ had “fessed up to where they got it wrong”.

Helen Measures, newly appointed national services director at HM Court and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), said the benefits of the court reform programme for probate had “partially been met”, in that a new system was introduced which was easier for people to access, with 80% of all probate applications now done digitally.

However, she accepted that too many experienced staff had been lost from the Probate Service. “Another big lesson learnt is that I don’t think we were listening enough to the staff in the probate office who had concerns. We’ve addressed that now.”

Ms Measures said she expected the service to have “recovered and to have stabilised” by September this year.

The service was responding to correspondence within 10 days and, once it was in a “steady state”, could reduce the 16-week limit for responding to enquiries about probate applications.

Mr Freer said: “It is true to say that both the department and the staff recognise that the service has not been delivering, certainly in the past, although I believe it is on the right trajectory.”

He said the MoJ and staff apologised “profusely” for the service errors, recognising that probate was an “extremely difficult time” in people’s lives.

Mr Freer said that grants of probate had outstripped receipts for the last seven months and by September he expected the current backlog of 69,000 probate cases to have been cut to around 30,000.

Meanwhile, Ms Measures said the service was considering whether to provide the public with “clear expectations” on service levels.

“We don’t have a set of minimum standards, and I would be interested in the committee’s view on this.”

Referring to the investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority, launched last July, into unregulated will writing, online divorce and pre-paid probate services, Mr Freer said that if there was “very strong evidence” of the need for regulation, the government would look “hard and fast” at it.

“Whether it is self-regulation or state regulation, we are happy to look at it.”

    Readers Comments

  • Michael Robinson says:

    1 Get each Court centre staffed so people can ring or call in person and get an answer.
    2 employ more public servants to work in the Court offices.
    3 simplify the processes.
    4 reduce the high level of security and make Court buildings welcoming and open.
    4 perhaps instead of MoJ “reforming” the justice systems they could concentrate on more staff, more Judges, more Magistrates and making the system work better through engaging more people to provide a service.

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