A programme of digital-led innovations costing over £1bn was launched by HMCTS in 2016 (see ‘The price of online courts
’). HMCTS plans to hear 2.4m cases outside physical court and tribunal premises from 2023, and the move to online services is targeted to save it £265m per year (see Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals
, HC 1001, National Audit Office, 9 May 2018, page 4).
In its report published last year, Transforming courts and tribunals. Fifty-sixth report of session 2017–19
(HC 976, 20 July 2018), the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts was highly critical of HMCTS. The report found that the service had only delivered two-thirds of what it had expected to, despite extending the timetable for the changes from four to six years. The committee was also concerned that time pressures to deliver change meant HMCTS was not allowing enough time to consult practitioners and users, and this ‘could lead to unintended consequences’ (page 5).
In a statement, the chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP, stressed the importance of the reforms and welcomed the ‘intention of modernising the courts and tribunals’. He observed, though, that the Public Accounts Committee ‘has already raised concerns about the deliverability of the reforms’ and that his committee is ‘worried about the access to justice implications and will take this opportunity to put those at the heart of our inquiry’.
The Justice Committee is calling for submissions
(by 11 March) that address the terms of reference for the inquiry. These include the effect of the closure of courts and tribunal buildings, and whether the availability of online and video hearings will be an adequate substitute for the loss of physical hearings.
‘Much could be achieved through greater use of technology to provide access to justice, but so far the government seem unwilling to invest in the necessary advice and support many people need to use digital services,’ said LAG director, Steve Hynes.