Courts and tribunals reform programme progressing more slowly than expected
Marc Bloomfield
Government auditor the National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has made ‘less progress overall than it had expected to’ on the modernisation programme on which it first embarked two years ago. It also says HMCTS faces a ‘daunting challenge’ in meeting its targets for new digital services and cultural change in the service.
The NAO is independent of government and scrutinises public spending on behalf of parliament. Its report, Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals (HC 1001), was published on 9 May 2018, and makes a number of critical observations:
annual savings in HMCTS are expected from 2023/24 onwards, but there is a £61m funding gap in the cost of implementation;
by September last year, HMCTS had fully completed only 62 per cent of the planned outcomes for the programme;
there has been slippage in the timetable to implement the plans, from four to six years, though the original budget of £1.2bn has remained unchanged;
the six-year timetable is still shorter than that taken for other countries to implement less ambitious programmes; and
partly due to the elongated timetable, the anticipated savings from the reforms are less than originally estimated.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is pressing ahead with its planned closure of courts and large cuts in staff numbers. According to the report, it plans to cut full-time equivalent staff numbers by 5,000 and reduce the number of physical hearings by 2.4m (in 2016/17, HMCTS processed 4.1m court cases) by March 2023. The NAO notes that ‘[a]round 65 per cent of the benefits from the reform programme so far have come from not replacing staff who have left, rather than from fully implementing new ways of working or moving services online’ (page 8, para 18).
Responding to the report, Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HMCTS, said its findings were assisting the department in running the reform programme and that it was ‘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’ (‘HMCTS response to National Audit Office report on court reform programme’, HMCTS/MoJ, 9 May 2018).

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