HM Courts and Tribunals Service is “making amends” and adapting its rollout of the controversial Common Platform system to prioritise addressing legal advisers’ concerns, the chief executive of the agency has said.
Legal advisers and court associates ended months of strikes last week after their union, PCS, won assurances from HMCTS including taking action to combat Common Platform-related stress and anxiety.
Nick Goodwin told MPs this morning that addressing legal advisers’ stress when using Common Platform is the organisation’s “number one priority”.
“I am deeply concerned about those legal advisors that feel this is difficult for them,” he told the Public Accounts Committee.
He said the agency is focusing on legal advisers’ top five concerns about Common Platform and “going at that absolutely full tilt”.
“We realised this wasn't just a technical issue – we needed to get things better for our legal advisors,” he told MPs.
Goodwin said legal advisers’s confidence that the Ministry of Justice agency is addressing the issues has “completely turned around” since November, when it started holding Teams chats with legal advisers on the issues.
In November, around 22% expressed faith and confidence that HMCTS was responding to their needs but this had increased to 58% in the most recent survey, according to Goodwin.
“So I think we are making amends,” he said.
HMCTS is working “hand in glove with legal advisors” to make further improvements and is keeping the PCS union “absolutely involved”, Goodwin added.
“It's the number one priority for HMCTS at the moment, to get this aspect of Common Platform working better,” he said.
The HMCTS chief exec said the agency has changed its approach – not just for Common Platform but for the implementation of all of its 2018 reform programme – “to support the frontline so the changes are being delivered to them in a way that hits their need more than we were able to do in the pandemic”.
“We really have learned from the feedback we've had from legal advisors,” he added. “We’ve put an enormous amount of effort into this.”
Goodwin said he does not want the agency to be in this situation again – “where legal advisors are projecting dissatisfaction anywhere other than to the team within HMCTS who can fix it”.
“I want legal advisors to be coming to us having trust that we're improving things for us rather than going to the unions or anyone else,” he said.
In PCS’s announcement that it had agreed a deal to end strikes, it said HMCTS’s offer included a commitment to end “staff blame culture” over the IT system.
Asked about this by PAC members, Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo said: “I don't know about that particular issue, but clearly there's no place for a blame culture in any organisation.”
PCS has warned that it will continue its campaign to scrap the IT system, which is currently live in 78% of all criminal courts.
Romeo – who said she is “delighted” the industrial action has ended – made it clear, however, that the system is here to stay.
“What we want to do is to listen to feedback, make it the best possible system, while acknowledging this programme is absolutely crucial in order to deliver all the benefits we've talked about,” she said.
“So I think the fact of the programme isn't really a choice. It's about how we can design it and roll it out in a way that meets users’ needs, delivers the benefits, but also allows staff to feel that they're contributing and co-creating and giving feedback that we're listening to.”
Common Platform rollout delayed further
Common Platform was initially supposed to be rolled out in all magistrates and crown courts by the end of this month – with a contingency in place in the programme to extend this to December if needed. But the rollout target has now been delayed beyond 2023.
Goodwin told MPs the rollout will be extended until March 2024 for some crown courts to avoid disrupting efforts to reduce the current backlog in hearings.
Common Platform has been beset by delays due to development issues, the Covid-19 pandemic and technical issues – such as failing to send important notifications.
The case-management system is a major part of HMCTS’s ongoing reform programme. In a recent report, the National Audit Office warned the agency might require additional funding, as well as more time, to complete it.
But Goodwin told MPs today he is “confident” that HMCTS can complete the programme with the remaining funding.