HMCTS comes under pressure over proposed court reforms

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has come under pressure from the Law Society of England and Wales and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) over court reform preposals.

In a report published last week, the PAC found that the long history of resets, revisions, and delays to the Court Reform Programme (CRP) “has largely been due to HMCTS’ consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity of these reforms”.

HMCTS extended its timetable for the CRP for a third time in March, and now plans to deliver most reforms by March 2024, three months later than planned. Complete delivery of its digital case-management system, the Common Platform, is expected in March 2025, over a year later than planned. Despite having just £120 million left of its total £1.3 billion budget, HMCTS has only completed 24 of 44 reform projects.

Multiple technical and design problems throughout HMCTS’ roll-out of the Common Platform created extra problems for court staff working hard to deal with large case backlogs worsened by the pandemic. HMCTS’ failure to engage with court users on the roll-out also increased the burden on pressured courts and staff. The PAC said it is disappointed that court users still did not feel properly heard by HMCTS, despite past assurances that it would do more to ensure staff and stakeholders felt listened to.

The report also warns that HMCTS risks undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system if it does not take swift action on assessments it made in November 2022 on access to justice. These identified concerning disparities in how divorce and probate services perform for different groups, such as ethnic minorities – but HMCTS has not yet acted on these findings. The PAC also heard of issues with some reformed services resulting in solicitors not receiving necessary notifications and significant delays to cases, and is concerned that HMCTS does not fully understand how reforms are impacting court users, victims, or access to justice.

“Our courts were already stretched thin before the pandemic, and the backlogs now faced pose a real threat to timely access to justice. These are services crying out for critical reform, but frustratingly HM Courts & Tribunal’s attempts appear in some cases to be actively hindering its own staff’s ability to carry out their jobs,” said Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee. She continued:

“In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users.

We would expect HMCTS to appreciate by now that complex reform such as this cannot be properly implemented while failing to engage with those impacted, but our report paints a picture of a service now rushing to introduce its plans following multiple delays.

HMCTS has now burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete. The Government told us that the complexity of managing some of these reforms was like ‘redesigning the jet engine while it is in flight’. It must explain how it intends to land the plane.”

“We share the PAC’s concerns about the progress and implementation of the court reform programme,” said Law Society President Lubna Shuja:

“Reform is long overdue but mustn’t be done in a way that adds to the burden on judges, court staff, solicitors and barristers who are already overstretched. Neither should it make the long delays faced by court users worse.

Feedback from our members has been that the speed of change and the number of changes all at once has been problematic.

Technology can drive efficiency in courts, however, rolling out unfinished or untested software drives delays and costs, as we have seen with Common Platform. Completion dates of projects still in development should be adjusted so they are realistic and achievable.

Such projects should only be launched in full once they have been fully tested and evaluated. For example, the online public family law service had functionality issues which led to significantly delayed cases because it hadn’t been sufficiently tested.”

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