A series of problems with the new digital case management system has hindered HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) court reform programme, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The criticism is a major element of its new report on the programme warning that, although it is nearing its end and the budget has been increased, it is not expected to be delivered to its current timetable and full scope.
Work began on the case management system, known as the Common Platform, in 2012, aimed at digitalising all stages of the courts process and providing a single shared system for HMCTS and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This proved more complex than anticipated and difficulties with the technical requirements led to a change of plan in 2021 to provide a new system only for HMCTS, which would share information with CPS via interfaces.
Further delays to the roll out were caused by performance issues such as lagging and slow system responses, and in September 2022 HMCTS found that the system had failed to notify partner agencies of required actions in approximately 3,000 cases – which impacted the outcomes for a few.
The report says that HMCTS did not get sufficient assurance that the Common Platform was ready to be introduced to courts, with a testing strategy insufficiently focused on the risks and a failure to articulate the standards the system would need to meet.
HMCTS has recognised the need to better understand and respond to user concerns, but it has not made clear how it tracks and responds to feedback, nor when users can expect improvements, NAO says.
Remaining technical issues are creating inefficiencies and risks for courts and the wider system, causing stress among staff and making the Common Platform the biggest cause for concern in the reform programme.
This prompts recommendations that HMCTS should prioritise improvements that would make it easier to use, communicate the plans to users and ensure they have sufficient support.
Reduction in savings
In addition, a change to the design of the Common Platform required an increase in spending and a reduction of the forecast on lifetime savings from the whole programme from £2.3 billion to £2 billion – and they will become apparent in 2025-26, a year later than when NAO last reported in 2019.
The new report says that overall, HMCTS has a limited understanding of whether the reforms are delivering the intended efficiencies.
It does acknowledge that HMCTS has made more services available online, such as for probate and divorce, but some of these are not operating as expected and have needed manual interventions by court staff.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “This has been a complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic. While the programme has continued to make progress, the decision to roll out the Common Platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time.
“As HMCTS develops plans to adjust the programme it is essential that it builds in sufficient time to learn as it goes and promptly address any performance concerns. It must also develop its approach to benefits realisation to secure value for money from the £1.3 billion of taxpayers’ money it has invested.”
HMCTS issued a response to the report in which its chief executive officer, Nick Goodwin, said it will carefully consider the recommendations and has some in in hand.
“Completing a programme of this scale in a live operational environment is not without its challenges,” he said. “There are reasons for this: some of them fall outside of our control, such as the pandemic; and some of them are things that we didn’t get right, such as introducing too much change too quickly. We can and will put this right.
“Common Platform remains a vital cog in the success of reform. It will replace legacy systems that are fragmented and unsustainable, but we recognise the areas of challenge raised in the NAO report having listened to our staff, partners and those using the system, and we have learned from experience how to do things better.
“We’re already acting on their feedback and will soon be confirming some adjustments to the programme timelines, that seek to ease pressure on the people implementing reform wherever it’s sensible to do so.”