NAO report on courts modernisation programme points to slow delivery and risks around digital case management system
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has hit significant problems in delivering its digital Common Platform and needs to address a number of risks, according to a new report on its modernisation programme from the National Audit Office (NAO).
Central government’s auditor has reported on the early progress of the effort to transform courts and tribunals, embodied in the portfolio of change programmes launched in 2016.
HMCTS said at the time that these should reduce its full time equivalent headcount by 5,000, the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million per year and annual spending by £265 million. The programme is also aimed at enabling the justice system to work better for all involved, making its processes more accessible and using court time more proportionately.
The first stage of the reforms was completed in September 2017, rolling out several technical components such as online applications for divorce. But the NAO report makes clear there have been significant delays in developing others, especially the Common Platform case management system.
This was originally scheduled for completion in July of this year but, despite some products having been delivered, the performance has been mixed and the date for completion is now set at June 2020. Also, it is not yet providing the expected financial benefits, which had been forecast at £50 million for 2015-17 but were revised to a deficit of £116 million.
There are also risks in providing a case management system for the courts, police and Crown Prosecution Service if not all of their needs are taken into account. It requires a thorough understanding of the data requirements and workflow processes of each service, the report says.
The situation with the platform reflects the slower than expected progress with the programme as a whole. HMCTS reported that at the end of its first phase it had fully completed 62% of planned outcomes and partially completed 25%, with 11% significantly incomplete and 2% ‘materially incomplete’, having an adverse impact on readiness for the next stage.
Among the NAO’s recommendations is that HMCTS should provide greater transparency of its objectives and progress, and be clear in how it is adapting the plans in response to risks. Also, it should work with the Ministry of Justice and HM Treasury to address the system-wide consequences of planned changes.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said today: “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. Not only could these delay improvements being delivered on time, the tight timetable could also force HMCTS to make changes before fully understanding the consequences for the justice system.
“HMCTS must continue to adapt its approach if it hopes to successfully deliver a modern justice system that works better for everyone and achieve necessary savings for the taxpayer.”
The Courts Service responded to the report by describing it as “constructive” and highlighting its acknowledgement of progress.
“Its recommendations are already helping to strengthen the way we run the programme,” its chief executive officer, Susan Acland-Hood, said. “We are confident, therefore, that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”
It also pointed to various digital services it has already launched, including Civil Money Claims – which it said drew over 3,000 claims in the first month – online divorce applications, and a new probate system in testing which has had a satisfaction rate of over 90%.
“We welcome each of the report’s recommendations and are committed to implementing measures to address them,” Acland-Hood said. “The NAO report has highlighted some areas for us to focus on as the programme continues, and will help us ensure that this vital programme of reform is delivered effectively and efficiently.”
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