Public confidence in the justice system is at risk of being undermined by the courts and tribunals service amid delays to key reforms, MPs have warned in a scathing report.
The agency has almost “burnt through” its entire budget to deliver a programme that is just over halfway complete, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Dame Meg Hillier said.
Many of the issues relate to the introduction of His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) so-called Common Platform – a controversial new case management programme aimed at modernising the system.
The rollout of the platform has added “significant stress” to staff already under pressure to reduce court backlogs, the committee said.
Members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents HMCTS workers, have previously staged walkouts over the scheme, which they say has been complicated to use and forced them to work long hours.
PAC said the courts and tribunals service had “consistently underestimated” the scale and complexity of reforms, including the platform, leading it to fall behind on estimated deadlines.
HMCTS pushed back its timetable for the Court Reform Programme (CRP) for a third time in March and now expects complete delivery of the Common Platform in March 2025 – a year later than planned.
Despite having just £120 million left of its £1.3 billion budget, it has only completed 24 out of 44 reform projects, PAC said.
The committee also voiced concerns that HMCTS does not yet fully understand how some changes are affecting victims, other court users or the public’s access to justice.
It made five recommendations, including for the service to outline how it intends to improve engagement and transparency with staff and stakeholders and what it is doing to assure itself that its plans are now realistic.
In assessments completed by November last year, the service identified “concerning disparities” in the way divorce and probate services perform for different user groups, such as ethnic minorities.
But it is yet to make any changes based on these findings, PAC found.
“HMCTS plans to publish some of its findings in autumn 2023, but it will continue to risk undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system if it does not increase the pace at which it takes action in response to their findings,” the report said.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chairwoman of the committee, said: “Our courts were already stretched thin before the pandemic, and the backlogs now faced pose a real threat to timely access to justice.
“These are services crying out for critical reform, but frustratingly HM Courts & Tribunal’s attempts appear in some cases to be actively hindering its own staff’s ability to carry out their jobs. In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users.
“We would expect HMCTS to appreciate by now that complex reform such as this cannot be properly implemented while failing to engage with those impacted, but our report paints a picture of a service now rushing to introduce its plans following multiple delays. HMCTS has now burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete.
“The Government told us that the complexity of managing some of these reforms was like ‘redesigning the jet engine while it is in flight’. It must explain how it intends to land the plane.”
The committee’s concerns were echoed by the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales.
“Reform is long overdue but mustn’t be done in a way that adds to the burden on judges, court staff, solicitors and barristers who are already overstretched. Neither should it make the long delays faced by court users worse,” Law Society president Lubna Shuja said.
“Feedback from our members has been that the speed of change and the number of changes all at once has been problematic. Technology can drive efficiency in courts, however, rolling out unfinished or untested software drives delays and costs, as we have seen with Common Platform. Completion dates of projects still in development should be adjusted so they are realistic and achievable.
“Such projects should only be launched in full once they have been fully tested and evaluated. For example, the online public family law service had functionality issues which led to significantly delayed cases because it hadn’t been sufficiently tested.”
An HMCTS spokesperson said: “We are modernising our courts so they are fit for the 21st century and the digital services we have introduced have been used over two million times.
“The Common Platform is a vital part of this reform, replacing old systems that are fragmented and unsustainable, but we have listened to our staff, partners and those using the system in order to make its rollout smoother.
“We will consider the findings of this report and are already acting on many of its recommendations, including ensuring we’re using lessons learned so far to improve the remainder of the programme.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub