A group of MPs have raised concerns about the “attempted reforms” of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), especially “resets, revisions and delays” of the Court Reform Programme (CRP). The government department has been criticised for its “consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity” of this digital transformation scheme, with work to update legacy IT systems having already cost more than £1bn.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which examines the value for money of government spending, explored why HMCTS reforms and the Common Platform, a single digital system for all courts across the UK, had been delayed, with only 24 of the 44 reform projects being completed. It found that of the £1.3bn set aside for the projects, only £120m remained.
The report’s findings point to “multiple technical and design problems” throughout the roll-out of the HMCTS Common Platform, as well as large case backlogs, which were worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Common Platform is intended to allow access to all parties involved in a case including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The inquiry came off the back of the National Audit Office (NAO)’s report in February 2023, which found HMCTS’ lack of understanding of the impact reforms had on users and its decision to not prioritise “sustainable change” over pace could result in a solution that did not provide value for money for the taxpayer. It also called out the Common Platform as being of “most concern.”
Common Platform created extra problems for court staff and users
According to the PAC report, issues with HMCTS’ roll-out of the Common Platform made dealing with the case backlog even more problematic for court staff. Court staff went on strike over the problems with the platform last year, with the PCS Union saying there had been and “alarming increase in reports of stress and anxiety and long working” following its introduction.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair 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.”
She continues that services are “crying out for critical reform” but that staff within HMCTS are being hindered by the department’s attempt to digitally transform its operations: “In particular, the roll-out of the Common Platform digital system was a blow upon a bruise for pressured court users,” Hillier said.
The report also found that HMCTS failed to engage with users of the court system on the roll-out of the Common Platform, increasing the burden on the courts and its staff. The committee said it was disappointed that court users did not feel “properly heard” by HMCTS, despite past assurances that it would do more to ensure people felt listened to.
HMCTS risks undermining public confidence in the justice system
Concerns were also raised by the committee about the risks of undermining public confidence in the justice system. The MPs said that HMCTS needed to take “swift action” on assessments it made in November 2022 on access to justice.
“These identified concerning disparities in how divorce and probate services perform for different groups, such as ethnic minorities – but HMCTS has not yet acted on these findings,” the report said.
“The committee also heard of issues with some reformed services resulting in solicitors not receiving necessary notifications and significant delays to cases and is concerned that HMCTS does not fully understand how reforms are impacting court users, victims, or access to justice.”
Hillier added said that HMCTS wasn’t meeting expectations: “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,” she said.
“HMCTS has now burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete,” she continued, adding that: “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.”
HMCTS says that the Common Platform is a ‘vital part’ of reforms
HMCTS told Tech Monitor that it would consider the findings of the report and respond in due course.
“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,” an HMCTS spokesperson said. “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 roll-out smoother.
The government department said that it had “achieved a lot” through the reforms, with its digital services used over 2.1 million times. It says that Common Platform remains a “vital cog in the success” of its reforms and will replace legacy systems – it is currently live in 221 courts, which includes 76 Crown Courts and 145 Magistrates’ Courts. Over 70% of all courtrooms – including over 90% of Crown courtrooms – can allow parties in a case to join hearings remotely.
When it comes to accessing other digital court services, HMCTS also says that over 400,000 online civil money claims have been processed since their introduction in March 2018, with a 96% user satisfaction rating. Probate applications are also moving online, and by December 2022, digital uptake had increased to 80%.
Common Platform and HMCTS reforms were brought in to deal with backlogs
Rohan Gogeer, senior analyst at GlobalData, told Tech Monitor the department he believes the department has “bitten off more than it can chew” by embarking on such a wide-ranging transformation project. He explains: “The reason these reforms started to happen in 2016 was that there was significant stress and backlogs to the staff that work at HMCTS. This was before Covid-19, which has of course made it worse.”
According to GlobalData, the main suppliers to the reform programme include Capgemini, which has been involved with HMCTS’ projects since 2017, Solirus Consulting, Kainos and Atos.
Capgemini’s £4m contract – awarded in 2021 – was to work on the architecture required to enable end-to-end “consistent design digital delivery throughout all transition stages and aligning across external and internal dependencies”, while Kainos was handed a £2.9m contract in 2019 for the divorce portal software. Atos was awarded £9.6m in 2018 to work on “business applications and application components” for professional users to manage and progress cases across “multiple jurisdictions and services” and Solirus received £9.63m for “delivering agile quality assurance, architectural and software engineering services” to the Civil, Family and Tribunal programme.
However, the project as a whole has been riddled with problems, springing from inefficiencies: “There were things that didn’t work and that needed a lot of manual intervention, for example through the divorce portal,” Gogeer explains. “If everything had run smoothly from beginning to end, as an efficient system, they would not have burned through £1bn.”
However, he explained that funding will be a main issue for HMCTS going forward, with the department left out of the spring and autumn budgets: “There wasn’t any direct funding given or any attention paid to the criminal justice system,” he says.