£1.2 billion court modernisation programme behind schedule

National Audit Office verdict: "Modernising the justice system is an ambitious challenge. HMCTS has improved its approach, but overall it is behind where it expected to be and significant risks remain."

Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings, and is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme.

That’s the verdict of today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The modernisation project

In 2016, HMCTS set up a portfolio of change programmes to introduce new technology and working practices to reform and upgrade the justice system. The planned changes affect every aspect of HMCTS’s activities. The major programmes are:

  • The HMCTS Reform Programme which is modernising processes and systems to reduce demand on courts by moving activity out of courtrooms. For example, it will introduce online services and digital case files and expand the use of video technology in hearings.
  • The Common Platform Programme which is developing shared processes and a digital criminal justice case management system to share information between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. It is jointly managed by these organisations.
  • The Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP) which is upgrading systems in HMCTS’s National Compliance and Enforcement Service, used to enforce court orders such as penalties and compensation.

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual spending by £265 million. As well as making savings, HMCTS believes the reformed system will work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately and make processes more accessible to users. You can see the key facts & figures in the images below.

Key Findings

The key findings from the NAO’s assessment are set out below:

  • HMCTS’s change portfolio presents a very significant challenge; it is much broader than comparable programmes in other countries. The transformation programme includes introducing new technology, rationalising estates, restructuring the workforce and operations, and managing critical dependencies. It also involves multiple stakeholders, some of which are constitutionally independent of government. 
  • HMCTS has changed the timescale and scope of the portfolio significantly since 2016, extending the timetable from four to six years in 2016, though it did not change the budget. It has since reduced the scope of the Common Platform Programme and brought others such as the Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme and other smaller change programmes into a single portfolio. 
  • The revised six-year timescale for the reforms is still shorter than the time taken to complete smaller programmes in other countries. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s most recent assurance review concluded that successful delivery of the programme was in doubt, and that there were major risks or issues in a number of key areas. 
  • HMCTS has made less progress overall than it had expected to at this stage. HMCTS completed the first of four ‘interim states’ at the end of September 2017, including rolling out early versions of several technical components such as online applications for divorce. At this point, it reported that it had fully completed 62% of planned outcomes and partially completed 25%, with 11% significantly incomplete and the remaining 2% adversely affecting the delivery of the next state.
  • Expected costs have increased and planned benefits have decreased. Since 2015, HMCTS has revised its business cases for the Reform Programme and the Common Platform Programme twice. The 10-year economic case has weakened in each successive iteration.
  • There are gaps in the funding for reforms in later years. HMCTS plans to pay for changes using funding from HM Treasury (£810 million) and retained savings and receipts from property sales (£282 million). The business case projects a funding shortfall of £61 million, assuming that HM Treasury will agree that all previous years’ underspends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the funding gap could be £177 million.

Conclusion

The NAO concludes that HMCTS faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the administration of justice, and achieve the savings required. It notes that:

The scale of the challenge is increasing and the programme is under significant pressure to meet what is still a demanding timetable. There are unresolved funding gaps, and trying to fit savings around spending commitments and demand pressures could undermine services. Government’s record of transforming public services suggests the overall benefits of the changes are likely to be smaller than expected and will take longer to achieve.

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