Watchdog MPs have said they are “seriously concerned” at the multiple delays and revisions to HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s Court Reform Programme – and called for new clarity on its cost and the savings that will be delivered.
A damning report from the Public Accounts Committee says HMCTS “consistently underestimated” the scale and complexity of its reform programme, which includes the problem-hit Common Platform digital case-management system.
HMCTS extended its timetable for the programme for a third time in March, and now plans to deliver most reforms by spring 2024, three months later than planned. Complete delivery of Common Platform is now not expected until March 2025, more than a year later than planned.
The PAC report said HMCTS had just £120m of its £1.3bn budget left, but had only completed 24 of the programme’s 44 reform projects.
Committee members said multiple technical and design problems had hampered HMCTS’ rollout of Common Platform, creating “extra problems” for court staff working hard to deal with backlogs of cases exacerbated by the pandemic.
Members of the PCS union have staged several days of strike action to demand a pause to the rollout of Common Platform while staff concerns are addressed. In the early months of the system’s implementation HMCTS openly disputed those concerns.
The PAC report comes on the back of a National Audit Office probe in February that found HMCTS had only a “limited understanding” of the efficiency savings that were being delivered by the implemented elements of the Court Reform Programme.
However the NAO noted that the anticipated future savings from the programme had reduced by £310m since 2019 and earlier this year stood at around £2bn.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said the nation’s courts had been stretched thin before the pandemic and the backlog in cases waiting to be heard now posed a “real threat” to timely access to justice.
“These are services crying out for critical reform, but frustratingly HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s attempts appear in some cases to be actively hindering its own staff’s ability to carry out their jobs,” she said.
“In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users.”
Hillier said her committee would expect HMCTS to appreciate by now that complex reform could not be properly implemented without engagement with those impacted by the changes. But she said the reality seemed to be different – with court users still reporting that they did not feel listened to.
“Our report paints a picture of a service now rushing to introduce its plans following multiple delays,” she said.
“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.”
Among their recommendations, MPs called on HMCTS and parent department the Ministry of Justice to set out how they are assuring themselves that the current reform plans are “realistic and will not require further resets”.
HMCTS and MoJ were also given six months to explain how they will assess the full cost of the reform programme, including expenses not included in the most recent business case. MPs cited the Crown Prosecution Service’s development of Common Platform interfaces and the cost of additional functionality required to get service up to standards as examples of the kinds of expenses they want to hear about.
PAC members asked HMCTS to explain what it is doing to better understand how efficiently reformed services are working and how it will use this information to ensure it is on track to deliver expected savings.
According to the NAO, HMCTS now expects its reform programme to deliver £220m in efficiencies a year from 2025-26, but the service has not outlined how it expects pauses and other changes to the reform programme to affect that figure.
An HMCTS spokesperson said: “We are modernising our courts so they are fit for the 21st century and the digital services we have introduced have been used over 2 million times.
“The Common Platform is a vital part of this reform, replacing old systems that are fragmented and unsustainable, but we have listened to our staff, partners and those using the system in order to make its roll-out smoother.
“We will consider the findings of this report and are already acting on many of its recommendations, including ensuring we’re using lessons learned so far to improve the remainder of the programme.”