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HMCTS adds a year to courts modernisation programme

08/03/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has given itself an extra year to complete its courts modernisation programme.

Justice statue

It said it now aims to complete the programme in 2023, citing the need for more time to develop the shared systems that will sit behind the online services under development.

This follows criticisms of the programme and warnings that it could undermine some elements of justice processes.

HMCTS described the move as a decision to “re-order aspects of the programme” and said it is should still “transform the administration of justice”.

“As a major government project, HMCTS reform is subject to a cross-government approvals process, which is ongoing,” it said.

It pointed to a series of digital services that have already been launched under the programme, including: an in-court system for recording the results of cases digitally; an online Civil Money Claims Service, with more than 51,000 claims over the past year (according to management information); an online service for divorce applications with more than 31,000 made since last April; and an online probate service with more than 12,000 applications since July.

Commons criticism

Last year the Commons Public Accounts Committee said the programme had been over-ambitious in its timescale and had suffered from weak governance.

This was followed by the Legal Education Foundation compiling a report that revealed a consultation of senior judiciary showed they believed the £1.2 billion modernisation programme would make the courts “unworkable”. Sir Terence Etherton, master of the rolls, and Lord Justice Coulson, deputy head of civil justice, said most civil judges believed “trials involving oral evidence are not suitable for video hearings”.

The programme has, however, had its defenders. Last November the IT adviser to the lord chief justice, Professor Richard Susskind, argued that worries about digital exclusion should not get in the way of efforts to modernise the courts.

While the statement from HMCTS emphasised the need for work on the technology involved in the modernisation, some of the ethical and financial implications have also come under scrutiny. In January the House of Commons Justice Committee launched an inquiry into the programme, emphasising its possible effects on access to justice.

Image from iStock, Anthony Baggett

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