1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) on progress in transforming the courts and tribunals system. We also took evidence from the Law Society and the Bar Council, organisations that represent the legal profession, as well from the third sector organisations Transform Justice and the Law Centres Network.
2.In 2016, HMCTS, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, established a transformation programme to modernise and upgrade the courts and tribunals system. It aims to introduce new technology and working practices to change the way criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals operate so that the system is more accessible, just and proportionate, so that courts are only used for those issues and cases that cannot be dealt with elsewhere. Broadly these changes aim to simplify procedures and move activities online, thereby improving efficiency by reducing demand for court buildings. HMCTS is also reducing the size of its court estate and workforce and introducing new ‘service centres’ to centralise administration and case management. Once the reforms are complete, HMCTS expects to reduce cases in physical courtrooms, employ 5,000 fewer staff, and reduce its annual spending by £244 million. The transformation programme is expected to cost £1.2 billion and take 7 years. HMCTS reached the end of the second stage of the programme in January 2019.
3.The reforms to the courts and tribunals system are hugely ambitious and on a scale which has never been attempted anywhere before. They involve very challenging elements such as multiple projects to create new technology from scratch, a diverse group of users and the need to build up the commercial capability of the Ministry. When we last reported in July 2018, HMCTS had fully completed around two thirds of what it had planned to in the first stage of the programme, but this time, at the end of its second stage, it has completed just over half. Despite this performance, the Ministry believes the programme is being well governed and is “broadly speaking, on track”.
4.The reforms were originally due to be completed within four years but, following an external review and challenge from Cabinet Office and Treasury, HMCTS added two years to the timetable. HMCTS has now added a further year, meaning the programme will now take seven years and is due to be completed by 2023. We asked HMCTS whether, given all the changes and the ambition of the reforms, the timetable would be moved back again. HMCTS refused to rule out a further extension but told us that the extension of the timetable to seven years has given it “much more comfort that the timetable … is a realistic and deliverable one.” HMCTS said the extra year will allow it to build the “central spine of the new digital system for civil, family and tribunals” as well as slowing down further court closures to reflect new principles around consultation. Despite its confidence that the new timetable would be met, HMCTS explained that one of the biggest risks of the programme was maintaining the momentum of the rollout. Furthermore, the common platform, which HMCTS called the “riskiest part of the programme” will not be rolled out until the first half of 2020.
5.New primary legislation is needed to facilitate these reforms but, so far, all the necessary legislation has not been passed. The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was first introduced to Parliament on 1 May 2019 but needs to be re-introduced following the prorogation of Parliament in September 2019, as it had not yet been passed into law. This Bill essentially sets up a new procedure rule committee to design rules for online services. Although not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech on 14 October 2019, the Ministry still expects the bill to be introduced. However, the Ministry and HMCTS have limited control over the timing of the bill and are reliant on parliamentary timetabling. Previous courts bills were lost following the 2017 General Election. HMCTS said that the absence of the legislation has not stopped reforms, but has led to them being introduced more slowly. Although HMCTS did not identify anything that it has not been able to do without the new procedure rule committee, it did concede that once the reforms scale-up, the absence of a dedicated committee will make things very hard.
6.The Ministry admitted that budget pressures have impacted the programme. Affordability issues led to the Transforming Enforcement and Compliance Programme (TCEP) being cancelled, even though it was expected to deliver significant future savings. We asked what other projects within the programme could be cancelled if there is further funding pressure. The Ministry, however, said that there is nothing similar to TCEP “that is immediately detachable from this programme without a whole pile of dependencies failing”. The Magistrates Association, although recognising the rationale behind the decision, lamented that the positive work done might be lost, as well as noting that infrastructure and processes to support the enforcement of fines would need to be addressed in the future.
7.The reforms were originally meant to improve efficiency and reduce HMCTS’s annual spending by £265 million (since revised down to £244 million). HMCTS claims to have saved £133 million so far. We asked how HMCTS monitors savings to make sure that they are linked to the reforms. To achieve savings, HMCTS relies on hitting budgets that are reduced in anticipation of changes. It told us that it has a “real challenge when it comes to … understanding … exactly what every bit of every HMCTS member of staff is doing every minute of their day.” HMCTS committed to getting a much better grip on this so it can be more specific about how people’s jobs are changing.
8.HMCTS recognised that it was well behind schedule to reduce the staff headcount by 5,000, having delivered only 91 reductions since 2017–18. It explained that it made a conscious decision to reduce the headcount after delivering changes rather than in anticipation of them. HMCTS has started to reduce headcount in areas where change has been delivered, such as divorce and probate. Given the lack of progress, we asked how HMCTS intends to deliver on the promised reductions by 2023 without damaging operations. HMCTS told us that its use of agency staff gives it the flexibility to deliver reductions more efficiently in the future, without compromising services.
9.Organisations representing users of the justice system told us that HMCTS has improved how it engages with them, echoing the NAO report which recognised positive changes in the way that HMCTS shares information on reform. The Law Society noted improved engagement on particular projects such as divorce petitions and online civil proceedings. But churn in HMCTS staff gave the Bar Council the feeling that “it was often saying the same things it had said two years ago, but to different people on the same sorts of groups.” Transform Justice noted the lack of transparency around the purpose of HMCTS’s engagement saying it is “not clear why anybody has been invited, why somebody else has not been invited, what the remit of the group is and what its result is.” The Law Centres Network also observed that engagement has tended to be around communicating changes in the hope that stakeholders get on board.
10.HMCTS told us that where it has engaged with users, feedback has been positive. For example, it said that 82% who attended webinars thought they were useful. However, its own stakeholder survey found that only 42% of users view HMCTS to be open and transparent. HMCTS pointed to legacy perceptions of the organisation, misunderstandings and “suspicion” around the motivation for reform as hampering its engagement efforts, but recognised it had to improve. The Ministry said the example of flexible operating hours, where HMCTS changed course due to user feedback, demonstrated HMCTS was “not just broadcasting, but listening.” Despite this, both HMCTS and the Ministry identified stakeholder engagement as one of the programme’s biggest risks that needs to be addressed.
1 C&AG’s Report, Transforming courts and tribunals: a progress update, Session 2017–19, HC 2638, 13 September 2019
2 C&AG’s Report, paras 1.1, page 4
3 Committee of Public Accounts, Transforming courts and tribunals, Fifty-sixth Report of Session 2017–19, 16 July 2018, para 3
4 Q 57
5 C&AG’s Report, para 6
6 Q 57
7 Q 58
8 Qq 58, 61, 63
9 Qq 67–68, 127–129
10 Q 41
12 Qq 42–43
13 Qq 86–87
14 Q 90
15 Ev xx - Magistrates Association submission para 3.2
16 C&AG’s Report paras 1.1, 1.12
17 Q 74
18 Q 92; C&AG’s Report, page 4
19 Qq 92–93
20 Qq 6–9; C&AG’s Report para 7
21 Qq 6, 8
22 Qq 79–80; C&AG’s Report para 7
23 Qq 81, 83
24 Qq 127–129
Published: 5 November 2019