HM Courts and Tribunals Service is “behind where it expected to be” in a £1bn digitisation and reform programme that still faces “significant risks”, according to the National Audit Office.
A statement issued by NAO on Wednesday claims that HMCTS now “faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings”.
The courts service’s reform agenda aims to reduce by 2.4 million the number of court cases held in physical courtrooms each year. During the 2016/17 year, the organisation processed a total of 4.1 million cases.
The transformation programme will see HMCTS’s number of full-time employees drop by about 5,000, and is intended to save the organisation £265m a year. In 2016/17 it spent £1.9bn.
To make good on this plan, the courts service is engaged in a programme of creating and launching a range of digital services, including online platforms for divorce applications and civil money claims. The digitisation agenda has also included digital sentencing for fare dodgers and a recent trial of the UK’s first “fully video courtroom”.
Since the reform strategy was first published in September 2016, HMCTS’s goal for realising its savings and efficiency targets has been effectively extended from 2021 to 2023. The scope of the plans and the expected returns have also been moderated. But even this might not be enough to ensure successful delivery, the NAO warned.
“Despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties to reduce risks in delivering this change portfolio – including extending the timetable from four to six years, reducing the scope, and scaling back planned benefits – delivering the reforms successfully remains extremely challenging,” the NAO said in a statement. “The NAO believes there is a significant risk that HMCTS will not be able to achieve all it wants within the time available.”
One of the biggest risks cited by auditors is a future funding shortfall of at least £61m, or as much as £177m if the Treasury does not agree that HMCTS’s underspending in previous years can be carried forward. Other factors outside the control of the courts service are also named as threats.
The NAO said: “Challenges exist in delivering the change portfolio, such as its reliance on other organisations to invest in new technology and change working practices, whilst having limited influence over these groups. HMCTS is also reliant on new legislation being introduced for some elements of the reforms, such as the planned extension of virtual hearings, which remains uncertain.”
HMCTS is urged by the NAO to work with the Treasury, the Ministry of Justice and other organisations in the justice system “to jointly anticipate and manage possible adverse consequences” of the reform programme. The courts service is also instructed to “provide more detail on how the modernised services will work in practice, what has already happened and what else needs to be done”, as well as “greater transparency of its objectives” and any changes to its plans or timetables.
HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said that the NAO report “is helpful and constructive”.
“We are pleased that the NAO acknowledges our ‘early progress’, and its recommendations are already helping to strengthen the way we run the programme,” she said. “We are confident, therefore, that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”
Acland-Hood added: “We welcome each of the report’s recommendations and are committed to implementing measures to address them. The NAO report has highlighted some areas for us to focus on as the programme continues, and will help us ensure that this vital programme of reform is delivered effectively and efficiently.”