1.Three years ago, the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary of England and Wales began the biggest programme to modernise a court system ever attempted anywhere. In the joint vision they set out for the programme in September 2016, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals aimed to provide a just, proportionate and accessible system while transforming how people obtain access to justice through greater use of technology rather than paper-based processes, moving some cases online and introducing some virtual hearings. Technological improvement would include development of a single online system for starting and managing cases across the criminal, civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions. Fewer courts would be needed, and closing buildings, and reducing staff numbers, would fund a smaller, more modern estate. The Government had committed to investing more than £700 million in courts and tribunals modernisation, and more than £270 million more in the criminal justice system.
2.The senior judiciary emphasised their commitment to the programme in evidence to our inquiry. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said the judiciary saw the programme as “long-overdue modernisation of our systems” to keep pace with developments in technology. The Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder, referred to the need for “transformational change”, and set out six principles by which the judiciary seeks to judge the transformation:
3.HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and responsible for administration of courts and tribunals. It reports to the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals through an independently chaired Board. In 2018–19, HMCTS employed around 16,100 full-time equivalent staff (of which 2,000 are contractors), operated 341 courts and tribunal centres that heard 4.4 million cases and spent £1.9 billion.
4.The National Audit Office 2018 report: Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals noted “significant financial and operational pressures” on the Government to improve the administration of the justice system. Many activities depend on outdated IT systems and/or paper-based processes that lead to inefficiencies and delays. Lord Justice Briggs highlighted the need for substantial investment in digitisation in his review of the civil courts in England and Wales. He recommended the development and launch of an online court for money claims of up to £25,000 by 2020.
5.The court and tribunal reform programme consists of more than 50 projects, and HMCTS provides regular updates on progress on its website. It originally structured the programme into three parts: Court Reform, the Common Platform Programme, and the Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP), but the last of those was suspended in September 2018 after being in development for nearly three years. Reform is now organised under three headings: Crime; Civil, Family and Tribunal; and Cross-cutting projects and services.
6.The NAO report Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals outlined in May 2018 what HMCTS expected its change portfolio to deliver, considered early progress against plans and explored risks to delivery. The NAO found that HMCTS faced “a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the administration of justice, and achieve the savings required.” Although HMCTS had responded to early concerns by extending the delivery timetable from four years to six, it was still under significant pressures and—according to the NAO—there was a real risk that “the full ambition of the change portfolio will prove to be undeliverable in the time available.” The NAO highlighted three fundamental areas of risk: sustaining commitment from stakeholders; managing the system-wide consequences of change; and adopting a realistic approach to benefits that the programme could deliver.
7.The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded in July 2018 that it had little confidence in successful delivery of the transformation programme, and raised concerns that HMCTS had not adequately considered the impact of the reforms on access to justice for vulnerable people or on the wider justice system. In March 2019, the Government put back the programme’s completion date by a further year to 2023, partly because of feedback received from the PAC and the NAO; this means that the programme will now take seven years to complete.
8.The PAC’s concerns about access to justice were a factor in our decision to launch our own inquiry on 10 January 2019, focusing on the effects of the reforms on people’s access to justice. We have published 87 submissions and held four public evidence sessions. We are grateful to all who provided written and oral evidence. We thank Dr Joe Tomlinson, our academic fellow, who with other academics, attended an informal, private evidence session on 9 July 2019 to help us review approaches to evaluating the reform programme (see Annex).
1 “Alongside the joint statement, the MoJ published a document summarising the approach that the Government would take to the reforms: . Ministry of Justice, 2016. Cm 9321 The document also included a public consultation on three issues: assisted digital facilities, automatic online convictions and the composition of tribunal panels
6 According to the Law Society Gazette (15 October 2018), the Ministry of Justice said that its TCEP plans were ‘no longer affordable’ within its funding allocation for the 2015 spending review period.
8 , HC 1001, Para 19
9 On 12 September 2019, the National Audit Office published its follow-up report, “” (HC 2638).
10 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. , Fifty Sixth Report of Session 2017–19, 20 July 2018, HC 976
11 Some of the evidence that we received addressed concerns about shortages of judges in the lower courts, an issue that has also been covered in media reports. While we acknowledge these concerns, we did not address them in this inquiry.
Published: 31 October 2019