HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has again fallen behind on critical reforms. HMCTS is now 3 years into its ambitious £1.2 billion programme to modernise the courts, which plan to change the way people access justice by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services. We last looked at the programme in mid-2018 and reported that we had little confidence that HMCTS could deliver its ambitious plans within its timetable. Although HMCTS responded to these concerns and extended its timeline to 7 years, it is still struggling to deliver all it promised. Recent moves to increase police numbers and, therefore, the likely rise in demand, will only make the challenge even greater and place courts and the wider justice system under even more pressure.
Disappointingly, many of the concerns we raised in our last report on the reform programme have not been addressed. It remains unclear how the reforms are affecting access to justice, especially for vulnerable people. HMCTS has not shown it is doing enough to understand the impact on court and tribunal users before pressing ahead with reforms, increasing the risk that justice outcomes might be affected, particularly with the court closure programme. HMCTS has closed 127 courts since 2015, yet has produced no formal evaluation of the impact. But closures have made it more difficult for people to access justice. Particular groups, such as those with disabilities, on low income, or living in rural areas, are especially disadvantaged. Another enduring concern is the quality of stakeholder engagement. We previously pointed out the importance of winning the hearts and minds of users, but although stakeholders report improvements in engagement, they feel HMCTS focuses on informing rather than listening and learning. As a result, HMCTS risks undermining trust in the reforms and, ultimately, in the fairness of the justice system.
Published: 5 November 2019