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Public Accounts Committee: 'little confidence sweeping courts reforms can be delivered'

Date:20 JUL 2018
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The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has released its Transforming court and tribunals report, in which it states that it has little confidence in HMCTS to deliver the sweeping court reforms promised by its £1.2bn courts modernisation plan.

The ‘hugely ambitious’ plan aims 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.

The PAC report highlights that, despite extending its deadline from four to six years, HMCTS has already fallen behind, only delivering two-thirds of what it expected at this stage. It states that the pressure upon HMCTS to deliver quickly and make savings is limiting HMCTS’s ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and risks it driving forward changes before it fully understands the impact on users and the justice system more widely.

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Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP, said:

‘Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.

Our report recommends action to address these failings. But even if this programme, or a version of it, gets back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely.

There is an old line in the medical profession – “the operation was successful but the patient died”.

It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services.

Government must engage properly with these challenges and explain how it will shepherd this programme through the upheaval taking place across the justice system.’

Jo Edwards, who chairs Resolution’s Family Law Reform Group and gave evidence to the committee, said:

‘We welcome the committee’s report, which should send a clear signal to HMCTS that they need to rethink how they are proceeding with the courts modernisation programme.

Resolution members regularly report delays in their local courts, and one in two said in our survey that the court they’ve used historically is earmarked for closure. The report rightly identifies Chichester (where a local Resolution member, Edward Cooke, fought for three years for local alternative provision) as a good example of where meaningful consultation by HMCTS early on could have prevented a lengthy debate over local court provision. This story is repeated across the country.

We hope HMCTS will take note of what the Public Accounts Committee have said today, will reflect on the devastating impact the courts programme is having on families, and will now engage more meaningfully with Resolution members and other court users across the country. Officials need to ensure the programme delivers real improvements to the courts system, without further restricting access to justice, and isn’t simply a cost-cutting exercise.’

Andrew Walker QC, Chair of the Bar said:

'Today’s report from the Public Accounts Committee endorses many of the concerns raised by the Bar Council about the HMCTS programme of modernisation and reform, and underlines their importance.

HMCTS has increased its efforts to engage with legal practitioners, but we are still a long way from achieving real and effective consultation on the most important strands of work. As today’s PAC report explains, engagement with the Bar has been fraught with practical difficulties of HMCTS’s making, and too often barristers and the Bar Council have wasted the valuable time that they are being asked to give to this (entirely at their own expense).

We are also not satisfied that sufficient attention is being paid to the implications that digitising legal processes, and the widespread use of video technology, may have for justice and fairness in every case. This must include ensuring that independent legal advice is received when it is needed most, especially before individuals make decisions that may have important implications, such as before indicating a likely plea when you are charged with a criminal offence. HMCTS has been reluctant to address this issue, as the availability of legal advice is not part of its design brief.'