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Modernisation programme for courts and tribunals making progress but behind schedule, says watchdog

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has “made progress, but is behind schedule with its ambitious plan to reform the justice system to make it simpler and cheaper to run”, the National Audit Office has warned.

The spending watchdog added that HMCTS faced a significant challenge to deliver the programme on time and to budget.

The NAO said the programme was now at a critical stage. In its report, Transforming courts and tribunals: a progress update, it said HMCTS had:

  • rolled-out some new services which people could now access more easily online;
  • established its first two courts and tribunals service centres, which had standardised support for some civil, family and tribunal services;
  • responded to concerns raised by the NAO previously by strengthening its approach to stakeholder engagement and being more transparent about the progress of its reforms. Research by HMCTS had found that many respondents were still concerned about its openness and transparency, however.

The spending watchdog highlighted how some services were not yet fully available to the public because HMCTS had made less progress than anticipated.

It also noted that HMCTS had also reduced the scope of its wider reforms by cancelling two projects, and had extended the timetable for the reform programme by one year until December 2023, meaning it will now take seven years. HMCTS had previously extended the timetable from four to six years following scrutiny before the programme formally began in 2016.

The NAO said: “While these changes do not affect the broad objectives of reform, they mean that lifetime savings have now fallen by £172m to £2.1 bn. At the same time, the savings to date of £133m claimed by HMCTS may not all have directly resulted from its reforms.

“HMCTS can track certain savings, such as those related to property costs. However, for some others, it relies on a series of models and assumptions to predict savings and does not check whether all these savings have materialised in the way it expected. It recognises that it needs to implement a more rigorous approach.”

The NAO said that HMCTS had followed a structured process when closing sites of courts and tribunals. “However, stakeholders have raised concerns that HMCTS is not being transparent enough in how it makes decisions, particularly when assessing access to justice.”

HMCTS has reconsidered its approach to future closures and published a new strategy in 2019.

The watchdog called on the Service to better understand the impact of its reforms, including how they are affecting users of the justice system. “It should do this by publishing its data on the effects of court closures and using feedback on how new services are being received to inform the development of future reforms. As it enters the third stage of its reforms it must move from designing new services to ramping up their implementation.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services, but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions.

“The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.”

Responding to the NAO report, Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said: “This modernisation programme must not become the HS2 of the justice system. HMCTS’ Court reform programme has once again come under critical examination by the National Audit Office and once again it has been found wanting.

“Whilst the Bar Council is relieved to see that the planned court closures have been scaled back, we have previously expressed considerable concern about the lack of access to justice for people who find that they live many miles from their nearest court, and we remain concerned over the future.”

The Bar Council Chair added: “HMCTS clearly needs to look very carefully at its modernisation programme. Whilst the aims are laudable, HMCTS must ensure that it does not put justice beyond the reach of many, or that costs rise and negate any supposed benefits from the proposed court closures.”

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