Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said it has “little confidence” that HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) can successfully deliver its modernisation programme for the justice system.
Its report on the programme – which places a heavy emphasis on the digitisation of court processes – says no other countries have even attempted a similar change at such a scale and pace, and that HMCTS is now well behind schedule for the delivery.
The reforms have suffered from poor progress measures and weak governance, and the programme for the Common Platform case management system – a central element of the modernisation – is “at significant risk of not delivering”, the report says.
The warning follows a similar one from the National Audit Office in May, which focused on the risks around the Common Platform delivery.
It contrasts with a series of announcement from HMCTS flagging up progress in areas such as a pilot programme for video hearings on tax appeals, preparations for online tribunals for immigration and social security cases, and the digitisation of divorce applications.
The PAC says that HMCTS is trying to push the programme forward at such a rapid pace that it is not allowing time for meaningful consultation or evaluation, and that this could lead to “unintended consequences”. It calls for better engagement with stakeholders and that the the service should be clear about how it will act on feedback.
It also expresses concerns that not enough thought has been given to how the changes will impact people using the services, many of whom are vulnerable.
“Moving services online without assessing the impact could have serious implications for users of the justice system,” it says. “We share concerns raised by legal professionals and in written submissions that, without sufficient access to legal advice, people could make uninformed and inappropriate decisions about how to plead, and that the roll out of virtual hearings could introduce bias and lead to unfair outcomes.”
It also airs criticisms about a lack of understanding of the financial implications for the wider justice system, and of a clear sense of priorities.
This leads to recommendations that HMCTS work more closely with HM Treasury on whether there will be any “cost shunting” and the effects on future funding settlements, and that the Ministry of Justice – parent department of the service – should set out which elements of the reform are essential and which should be put on hold.
Chair of the PAC Meg Hillier MP commented: "Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.
“Our report recommends action to address these failings. But even if this programme, or a version of it, gets back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely.
“There is an old line in the medical profession – 'the operation was successful but the patient died'. It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services.
“Government must engage properly with these challenges and explain how it will shepherd this programme through the upheaval taking place across the justice system.”
Image by Captain Roger Fenton, public domain through flickr