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Court reforms slow to check impact of changes

5 November 2019

  • Courts reforms continue to fall behind schedule and timetable appears over-optimistic
  • failure to consider impact of changes on vulnerable users risks undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system
  • plans to increase police numbers could spike demand putting greater strain on already stretched services

Report summary

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.

Chair's comments

“HMCTS ambitious modernisation programme continues to slip despite an extra year added to a much extended timetable while the revised schedule appears over-optimistic.

“Proposed increases in police numbers and changes to sentencing could lead to a huge spike in demand as more people are prosecuted, affecting justice services already under considerable strain.

“HMCTS must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice which would undermine public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Reforms are continuing to fall behind schedule: we are not convinced that it is possible for HMCTS to deliver everything promised in the current timeframe. When we last reported at the end of its first stage, HMCTS had fully completed around two thirds of what it planned, but this time, at the end of its second stage, it has completed just over half. HMCTS opted to add an extra year to make the reforms more deliverable but this may not be enough. HMCTS and the Ministry expressed confidence that they will meet the new timetable, despite acknowledging that the fast pace of reforms is a key risk. But current and past delays, and the increasing scale and complexity of what is still to be done, make the timetable seem over-optimistic. Enabling legislation continues to be delayed, some users remain unconvinced of the value of the changes and HMCTS needs to balance the tension between taking time to understand the impact of changes and the need to maintain momentum. In this context, HMCTS and the Ministry cannot rule out further extensions to the timetable.

Recommendation: HMCTS should write to the Committee once it finalises its next business case to set out the proposed alternative arrangements if plans cannot be achieved within current timeframes, including what projects could be eliminated, reduced or delayed if reforms come under further pressure. 

HMTC risks undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system by proceeding with its reforms without sufficiently demonstrating it understands the impact on justice outcomes or people. HMCTS is rolling out new systems and processes without first assessing the success, or otherwise, of experiences to date. To date its evaluation has largely been process-based, focussing on how new technology is working rather than the impact on people or justice outcomes. For example, HMCTS has not fully explored the impact that using video-hearings has on outcomes for defendants. Although some digitised services like divorce seem to be working well, representatives from Transform Justice, Law Centres Network and the Law Society are concerned about how online services may disadvantage users with low digital or legal literacy. Such people may be less likely to seek legal representation, putting them at risk of making uninformed decisions or incurring unknown costs. The Ministry's interim evaluation of the reform programme will not report until 2021, which is too long to wait for a better understanding of impacts.

Recommendation: HMCTS and the Ministry should write to the Committee by July 2020 demonstrating how evaluations will influence implementation of future services, including, where possible, an assessment of how reforms are affecting justice outcomes. It should map out the links between planned evaluations and its reform delivery plan to demonstrate how learning will influence future developments and deployments of services.

HMCTS did not adequately consider how previous court closures impacted on access to the justice system, particularly for vulnerable users.  HMCTS is planning to close a further 77 courts in the next phase of reform, having already closed 127 since 2015.  These courts were closed before services were moved online, meaning that many people are having to travel further to attend court. Organisations representing users of the justice system are concerned that court closures are affecting people's physical access to justice. Those living in rural areas, on low income or people with a disability are especially vulnerable as they may find it more difficult to travel to court. HMCTS admits that the initial closures were guided by the level of court use, rather than ease of access. It has assured us that future closures will only take place once it has evidence that reforms are reducing the need for physical hearings and, crucially, that access to justice will not be compromised.

Recommendation: HMCTS should set out what it will do to make sure that the needs of vulnerable users are considered in future closure decisions. Where access issues are apparent, it should put in place measures to compensate for difficulties, such as providing taxi vouchers in advance.

HMCTS has improved how it communicates with stakeholders, but many still do not feel listened to, undermining trust in reform. Since we last reported, HMCTS has restructured the way it engages with stakeholders and is giving them more information on reform. However, representatives from the legal profession do not feel listened to – instead their overriding impression is that HMCTS engages with stakeholders to communicate information rather than to listen and gain insight that will help shape reform. They also feel that HMCTS could be more transparent about the rationale for decisions. This concern was echoed in a recent stakeholder survey undertaken by HMCTS, which found that 42% of respondents did not believe HMCTS is open and transparent. HMCTS accepts that trust is undermined by myths and suspicions around the motivations for the reforms. The Ministry and HMCTS acknowledges that without putting users at the heart of the changes, the reforms will not succeed, and has assured us that it will do more.

Recommendation: HMCTS should set out what it will do to shift its engagement with key stakeholders from broadcasting information to genuinely listening and responding to feedback. It should provide examples where this engagement has resulted in change. 

HMCTS cannot demonstrate claimed savings are attributable to reforms so taxpayers cannot be confident they are getting what was promised. HMCTS expects to save £244 million a year through its planned changes to the courts and tribunal system. So far it claims to have saved £133 million from administrative, judicial and property efficiencies. However, HMCTS cannot clearly demonstrate the link between where savings come from and the reforms it has introduced. It acknowledges that this is difficult due to its limited understanding of precisely what its staff are doing and is working to improve its data. HMCTS is focused on trying to make sure that making savings, by reducing operational budgets, is not adversely affecting service quality. Although we recognise work is underway to address this, we are surprised it is not more advanced given the need to demonstrate to Parliament and the public that the reforms are delivering what was promised.

Recommendation: HMCTS should write to the Committee by the start of its next phase (May 2020) with a plan demonstrating how it intends to measure and monitor benefits arising from reform. This should fully set out the evidence it will use to link reforms and benefits.

The Ministry of Justice is facing a potentially huge spike in demand from changes to sentencing and increased funding for the Police, which risks placing increased strain on already stretched services. The intention to recruit 20,000 more police officers over the next 3 years will have downstream impacts on the rest of the justice system. The number of people being prosecuted and going to court, those being sentenced to prison terms and under the supervision of probation are all likely to rise. The Ministry is still working through the possible impact and quantifying the potential scale of the change, which will depend on when and where police will be deployed. Given the operational and financial pressure that court, prison and probation services are already under, it is far from certain the Ministry will have the capacity and capability to cope with a significant rise in demand.  Sustained cuts to the Ministry's funding have put services under strain. While the Ministry received a 4.9% increase in the 2019-10 Spending Round, it is not clear if this will be enough to match new demands.

Recommendation: The Ministry should report back to the Committee in six months, setting out how it plans to maintain and improve services in the face of rising demand in the justice system. The plans should cover:

  • Court and tribunal services;
  • Prisons; and
  • Probation.

Further information

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