The Ministry of Justice might not be able to cope with the knock-on effects of plans to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers over the next three years, a report has warned.
The stark observation came in a Public Accounts Committee report on MoJ executive agency HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s transforming courts and tribunals programme published on the day parliament was dissolved next month’s general election.
MPs said the police recruitment plans – announced by prime minister Boris Johnson in September – meant the MoJ was “facing a potentially huge spike in demand” for court, prison and probation services that it was “far from clear” the department could cope with.
“The number of people being prosecuted and going to court, those being sentenced to prison terms and under the supervision of probation are all likely to rise,” the report said.
“The ministry is still working through the possible impact and quantifying the potential scale of the change, which will depend on when and where police will be deployed.
“Given the operational and financial pressure that court, prison and probation services are already under, it is far from certain the ministry will have the capacity and capability to cope with a significant rise in demand.
“Sustained cuts to the ministry’s funding have put services under strain. While the ministry received a 4.9% increase in the 2019–20 Spending Round, it is not clear if this will be enough to match new demands.”
MPs called on the MoJ to report back to it in six months’ time, setting out how it planned to maintain and improve services in the face of rising demand in the justice system – with particular reference to court and tribunal services, prisons and probation.
Elsewhere, the report noted that HMCTS’ courts and tribunals reforms were continuing to fall behind schedule and said the extra year added to its transformation programme – increasing its duration to seven years – may not be enough.
“Current and past delays, and the increasing scale and complexity of what is still to be done, make the timetable seem over-optimistic,” the report said.
“Enabling legislation continues to be delayed, some users remain unconvinced of the value of the changes and HMCTS needs to balance the tension between taking time to understand the impact of changes and the need to maintain momentum.
“In this context, HMCTS and the Ministry cannot rule out further extensions to the timetable.”
The £1.2bn programme to modernise and upgrade the courts and tribunals system commenced in 2016. It aims to alter the way criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals operate by introducing new technology, working practices and changing the way HMCTS uses its buildings and employing 5,000 fewer staff – saving £244m a year in the process.
However MPs said they were concerned that the impact of the raft of court closures that is a pillar of HMCTS’ plans to host 2.4m fewer cases a year in physical courtrooms was not properly understood. The service has closed 127 courts since 2015 and plans to shut a further 77 courts in the next phase of the reforms.
“HMCTS risks undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system by proceeding with its reforms without sufficiently demonstrating it understands the impact on justice outcomes or people,” it said.
“HMCTS is rolling out new systems and processes without first assessing the success, or otherwise, of experiences to date.
“To date its evaluation has largely been process-based, focussing on how new technology is working rather than the impact on people or justice outcomes.
“For example, HMCTS has not fully explored the impact that using video-hearings has on outcomes for defendants. Although some digitised services like divorce seem to be working well, representatives from Transform Justice, Law Centres Network and the Law Society are concerned about how online services may disadvantage users with low digital or legal literacy.
“Such people may be less likely to seek legal representation, putting them at risk of making uninformed decisions or incurring unknown costs.”
It said an interim evaluation that was due to look at those issues was not due to report until 2021, which was “too long to wait for a better understanding of impacts”.
Echoing concerns flagged by the National Audit Office in September, MPs observed that HMCTS could not demonstrate that £133m in claimed savings from the programme to were attributable to the reforms, meaning taxpayers could not be confident they were getting what was promised.
“HMCTS cannot clearly demonstrate the link between where savings come from and the reforms it has introduced,” the report said
“It acknowledges that this is difficult due to its limited understanding of precisely what its staff are doing and is working to improve its data.
“Although we recognise work is underway to address this, we are surprised it is not more advanced given the need to demonstrate to parliament and the public that the reforms are delivering what was promised.”
HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said the report reflected the ambitious and challenging nature of the programme and the progress being made.
But she also accepted the need for the service to “redouble” its efforts to listen to and engage with all those who work within the justice system.
“The committee acknowledges improvements in this area but rightly says there is more to do to win hearts and minds,” she said.
“By re-designing the justice system around those who use it we are making it more accessible to all. More than 250,000 members of the public have used our new online services since last year with over 80% satisfied.
“Many of those users have told us that such services – like the new online civil money claims service that has now received more than 100,000 claims – have given them access to justice not previously available.”
She added: “Improving access to justice is at the heart of our programme and we will continue to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it progresses.”