Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Transforming the Justice system – views from the National Audit Office

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In this blog, I have tried to keep readers abreast of developments with the major Transformation of the Justice system programme. I have observed that this is not always easy and depends on keeping an eye out for press releases, blogs and now the new monthly e-bulletin issued by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

In May 2018, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its first appraisal of how the programme is going.

Obviously the NAO is supportive of the aims of the programme, which it summarises as follows:

In 2016, HMCTS set up a portfolio of change programmes that will introduce

new technology and working practices to modernise and upgrade the justice system.

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer staff, reduce the number of
cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual
spending by £265 million. Savings will come from lower administrative and judicial staff costs, fewer physical hearings and running a smaller estate. As well as making savings HMCTS expects the reformed system to work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately, and make processes more accessible to users.

The NAO report helpfully reminds readers of the scale and scope of the overall programme:

The HMCTS change portfolio consists of several related programmes, which in turn
are made up of many individual projects. The major programmes are:
• The HMCTS Reform Programme which is modernising processes and systems
to reduce demand on courts by moving activity out of courtrooms. For example,
it will introduce online services and digital case files and expand the use of video
technology in hearings.
• The Common Platform Programme which is developing shared processes
and a digital criminal justice case management system to share information
between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. It is jointly
managed by these organisations.
• The Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP) which
is upgrading systems in HMCTS’s National Compliance and Enforcement Service,
used to enforce court orders such as penalties and compensation.
As part of these programmes, HMCTS is also reducing and modernising the
court and tribunal estate and creating cross-jurisdictional hearing centres and national ‘customer service centres’. These will centralise case management and administration and provide support to the public, judges and lawyers on civil and criminal matters.
The NAO makes some rather obvious observations:

1 The scope of the programme is challenging

2 The timetable has been expanded

3 The scope of some projects has been reduced

4 Progress has been slower than expected

5 Costs have risen and likely benefits decreased

6 There remain funding gaps for the later stages.

The NAO notes that many of these points have been taken on board within HMCTS. Nonetheless, the NAO argues that more should be done to demonstrate in detail how the reformed system will work. It states that it is important to sustain the committment of all those involved in the design and delivery of the new service. It implicitly criticises the Ministry of Justice for its failure to reintroduce the legislation that will be needed to ensure that aspects of the reform programme can be implemented. The NAO warns that the scale and spped of change may result in changes having unexpected consequences. And as much of the anticipated savings arise from reductions in staff, this could actually lead to an inability to deliver the service.

The public response of HMCTS has been upbeat – as indeed it has to be. A Press Release acknowledges that the programme is challenging; it summarises a number of specific changes that have been delivered; and remains confident that the programme will be successfully delivered.

My own view is that it is very important that the transformation programme is delivered. But the managerial challenge of delivering a large scale change should not be underestimated. To date, key judicial figures have been working with HMCTS to promote the need for and advantages of change. Continued judicial leadership will be essential. But I think it would be wise to develop a wider group of ‘change champions’, particularly within the judiciary more broadly and from  the legal professions. Many practitioners will accept that the current system does not serve the public well. Many will have good ideas for how things could be done more efficiently and to greater public benefit. Giving them the encouragement to voice their support for change would be highly desirable.

The NAO report is at https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Early-progess-in-transforming-courts-and-tribunals.pdf.

The HMTCS Press release is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hmcts-response-to-national-audit-office-report-on-court-reform-programme?utm_medium=email&utm_source=

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