A report on the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) ambitious plans to reform the courts and tribunals system says that the budget savings will be less than predicted and that the cash saved from court closures is heavily dependent on selling high-value sites such as those in London.
The National Audit Office (NAO, an independent parliamentary body that monitors government expenditure) published Transforming courts and tribunals – a progress update
(HC 2638) on 13 September 2019. The MoJ is now around halfway through the reform timetable, which it has extended twice. Commencing in 2016, the reforms were originally scheduled to be completed by 2020 but, as the NAO notes, this was extended to 2022 even before the programme formally began, and has now been put back further to December 2023.
A total budget of £1.2bn was earmarked for the reforms, which include the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the courts and tribunals estate into fewer buildings. So far, £540m has been spent and the NAO notes that the MoJ has ‘met some significant milestones’ in its timetable (para 1.8, page 15). These include opening new centres in Stoke and Birmingham, as part of its plan to greater centralise services, and rolling out digital document assembly programs to replace paper forms. According to the NAO, by January this year, around 94,000 people had used online services for divorce, probate, civil claims and social security appeals.
The NAO says that the reforms will realise £172m less in overall savings than originally projected. A total of £244m is expected in savings annually from 2024/25. The NAO also appears to hint that the next phase of the reforms will be more difficult, as the department will have to increase the ‘pace and volume of project delivery’ (para 1.21, page 24). This includes cutting the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff working in the service by 1,175 (HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) currently employs around 16,000 FTE staff).
Perhaps the most controversial issue around the reforms has been the sell-off of court and tribunal buildings.1In ‘Selling off our silver’ (September 2019 Legal Action 10), former judge Nic Madge reported on a decade of court closures.
At the start of the reforms,2The report points out: ‘This includes six sites closed before 2015. HMCTS also manages more than 30 other sites including non-devolved tribunals in Scotland, administrative sites such as offices, and land purchased with the intention of developing it’ (page 25, footnote 11).
HMCTS operated from 468 sites in England and Wales. To date, this has been reduced by 114 sites3Para 2.13 (page 32) of the report states: ‘Of the 114 sites disposed of since the start of reform, HMCTS sold 27 (24%), transferred 33 (29%) to other government bodies and exited the lease of the remaining 54 (47%).’
realising proceeds from sales of £124m, slightly down on the target of £128m. The location and value of the sites plays a part in the MoJ’s decision-making process, says the NAO. It is ‘more likely to sell high-value sites, such as those in London’ to meet its target (para 2.13, page 32).
A change in approach in the consultation process over court closures is discussed in the report, but the NAO argues that HMCTS’s ‘new approach to estimating the impact of closures on access to justice does not address wider concerns raised by stakeholders’ (para 3.8, page 36). It also notes that while the service has said it will take into account the difficulties that vulnerable groups might have in accessing courts and tribunals,4See Response to ‘Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate’ consultation, MoJ, 10 May 2019.
if their local building is identified for closure, ‘it is currently not clear how it plans to do this’.