HM Courts and Tribunals Service has been urged to get a better grasp on the improvements it still needs to make as part of its £1.3bn transformation programme of the way courts operate and cases are managed, the National Audit Office has warned.
The public-spending watchdog said problems with the unpopular Common Platform digital case-management system – which has been the focus of strike action at dozens of courts – were “of most concern” as part of the reforms, which were launched in 2016.
It said that while the transformation programme’s cost had risen by at least £100m since its inception, its projected lifetime benefits had decreased by £310m since 2019 and were now £2bn. The NAO said it was also possible HMCTS would require additional funding and more time to complete the programme.
According to the report, 10 of the programme’s 17 reforms – which include individual estates projects and the introduction of new technology, such as hardware for video hearings away from court buildings – had been partly or fully rolled out as of November last year. But the NAO said HMCTS had only “limited understanding” of whether intended efficiencies were being delivered.
The report said that while HMCTS has claimed £311m in efficiency savings had been delivered between 2014-15 and 2021-22, it was “not able to isolate the impact of reform versus other factors” and recognised its claimed efficiency savings “may be inaccurate”.
The NAO echoed many of civil service union PCS’s concerns about the Common Platform system, which began being rolled out in September 2020, and said HMCTS now recognised it needed to better understand user concerns and respond to them.
“Common Platform users, including court staff and judges, told us that although the system had improved since its introduction, it has created inefficiencies in courts, caused stress for court staff and undermined trust in the quality of court records,” the report said.
It added that those “inefficiencies” had included interfering with the smooth running of live court cases and “in some cases” preventing convicted criminals from being fitted with electronic tags when they should have been.
The NAO said that HMCTS expected Common Platform to generate a quarter of the reform programme’s gross lifetime savings, but “several significant gaps in its functionality” remained. It added that several courts had reported they were listing fewer cases because it was taking them longer to process cases on the system.
The rollout of Common Platform has been paused on multiple occasions since September 2020. After an initial pause, HMCTS recorded 231 critical incidents that affected users on a national basis between March and October 2022.
A further two-week pause in the rollout began in September last year after it was discovered that the system had failed to send 3,011 important notifications to partner agencies between June 2021 and August 2022.
The NAO said that an in-depth review of several hundred of those cases found around 80 instances in which criminal-justice processes were “disrupted”. Among them were 35 cases in which electronic tagging requests were not enacted.
It said Common Platform users also had to deal with many more workarounds and manual processes than HMCTS originally planned.
NAO head Gareth Davies said HMCTS had added to the burdens faced by court staff by deploying Common Platform before it was clear it would meet users’ needs.
“This has been a complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic,” he said.
“While the programme has continued to make progress, the decision to roll out the Common Platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time.
“As HMCTS develops plans to adjust the programme it is essential that it builds in sufficient time to learn as it goes and promptly address any performance concerns. It must also develop its approach to benefits realisation to secure value for money from the £1.3bn of taxpayers’ money it has invested.”
HMCTS chief executive officer Nick Goodwin said the organisation would “carefully consider” the report’s recommendations.
“Completing a programme of this scale in a live operational environment is not without its challenges,” he said.
“There are reasons for this: some of them fall outside of our control, such as the pandemic; and some of them are things that we didn’t get right, such as introducing too much change too quickly. We can and will put this right.”
Goodwin said Common Platform remained a “vital cog” in the success of the reforms. However, he said HMCTS would “soon be confirming some adjustments to the programme timelines, that seek to ease pressure on the people implementing reform wherever it’s sensible to do so”.