HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (“HMCTS”) Reform Programme (“Reform”) is a portfolio of reforms aimed at modernising and redesigning the justice system by reducing complexity, introducing new technology and working practices to drive efficiency, and ultimately driving engagement based around the needs of the end user. It was initially launched in 2016 and is now in its final phase, with final phase implementation expected by March 2024.
The National Audit Office (“NAO”) recently published “Progress on the courts and tribunals programme” (the “Report”), which analysed the progress of Reform since September 2019.
Key findings of the Report
Nick Goodwin, CEO of HMCTS, highlights that as of 23 February 2023 there have been some significant achievements delivered through Reform, including:
- Reform’s digital service having been used over 2.1 million times;
- more than 400,000 Online Civil Money Claims have been processed since its introduction in March 2018, with a 96% user satisfaction rating for the service;
- over 70% of all courtrooms can allow parties in a case to join hearings remotely, where deemed appropriate by the judiciary;
- the development of a new digital tool for listing court and tribunal hearings, List Assist, which is already being used by the civil and family courts and is handling 50,000 cases each week;
- the opening of five centralised administrative and user contact centres (Courts and Tribunal Service Centres) across England and Wales;
- the full or partial rollout of 29 out of 44 planned projects;
- the transition of 24 of the 44 projects (55%) into “business as usual”; and
- making sure the reformed services are being developed in Welsh for those court and tribunal users who wish to interact in Welsh.
Despite this, the NAO Report recognises the impact that the pandemic has had on the Reform Programme; not only has it reinforced the need for reform, it has also required HMCTS to balance its Reform Programme work with its response to the pandemic. This has meant that some projects have been accelerated and adapted (e.g. implementing the widespread rollout of audio and video hearings in courts, quickly enabling virtual court hearings when buildings were closed in response to the pandemic), while others have been delayed due to challenging operational conditions and competing priorities created by, amongst other things, the pandemic (e.g. pausing further rationalisation of the HMCTS courts and tribunals estate, in order to preserve the capacity to address court backlogs following the pandemic).
The NAO found that “the scope and complexity of delivering several aspects of the [Reform] programme were greater than it [HMRC] estimated despite building in contingency to the business case” and identified that HMCTS’s priority to date appears to have been on delivering its reforms at pace, rather than embedding sustainable change; some of the delivered services are not working as efficiently as expected at this point and, although HMCTS does appear to have improved its plans to evaluate the impact of reforms on users, its understanding in this area remains limited.
The NAO states that, going forwards, HMCTS must now focus on achieving the anticipated benefits of the reforms, improve its understanding of the outstanding improvements it needs to make across the programme, and prioritise its remaining funding on those improvements which maximise the Programme’s financial and wider benefits.
HMCTS’s response to the Report and next steps
In its initial response to the report, HMCTS confirmed that it was already acting on NAO's feedback, which will include some adjustments to the programme's timelines.
More recently, HMCTS has acknowledged that Reform has faced difficulties, re-examined what can be achieved and by when, and prepared a revised schedule which will focus not only on dealing with identified difficulties and barriers but also on better preparing court and tribunals for the remaining changes which are due to be delivered over the coming year. Amongst the most significant of the planned upcoming improvements expected in relation to the civil legal system in England and Wales are the delivery of remaining services in online civil money claims, civil enforcement, bulk claims and damages within the next year.
While there is still a considerable amount of work required before Reform can be considered fully delivered, significant progress has been made since the programme’s inception and there is little doubt that HMCTS is delivering on its promise to modernise and ensure that we benefit from a justice system which is fit for purpose and driven by the needs of the end user.
If you have any questions on the above, please get in touch with Rob Griffiths and Ross Keeble.
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