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Public Accounts Committee has ‘little confidence’ in government’s court modernisation plans

Changes need ‘proper evaluation of their wider impact’

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has expressed little confidence in the government's ability to carry through its planned modernization of the courts and tribunals system.

A report, published on 20 July, says that HM Courts & Tribunals Service's £1.2 billion programme to modernise the courts is hugely ambitious and on a scale which has never been attempted anywhere before.

Transforming the courts and tribunals system in this way will change the way people access justice by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services.

Such sweeping changes will be extremely challenging to deliver. The Committee believes that the performance of HMCTS to date shows that it has much to learn if it intends to do everything it plans.

Despite extending its timetable from four to six years, HMCTS has already fallen behind, delivering only two-thirds of what it expected to at this stage, and it still has not shared a sufficiently well-developed plan of what it is trying to achieve.

The pressure to deliver quickly and make savings is limiting HMCTS's ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and risks it driving forward changes before it fully understands the impact on users and the justice system more widely.

HMCTS needs to ensure that the savings expected from these reforms are genuine rather than the consequence of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system such as the police, prison service or Crown Prosecution Service all of which have their own pressures to manage.

Without a better grip on these wider issues, the Committee considers that there is a significant risk that HCMTS will fail to deliver the benefits it expects.

In respect of the move to online access to the courts, the Committee says:

"Although HMCTS assured us that it is testing digital services, like online forms, with users, this does not amount to a proper evaluation of the wider impacts of the changes in the real world. We are concerned that HMCTS told us a great deal about processes and products and not enough about how the changes might affect people. Moving services online without assessing the impact could have serious implications for users of the justice system. We share concerns raised by legal professionals and in written submissions that, without sufficient access to legal advice, people could make uninformed and inappropriate decisions about how to plead, and that the roll-out of virtual hearings could introduce bias and lead to unfair outcomes."

For the full report, click here.