Watchdog warning on justice modernisation drive

A £1.2 billion modernisation of the justice system is behind schedule, facing funding gaps and at risk of failing to fulfil its aims in the proposed timeframe, Whitehall's spending watchdog has warned.

In 2016 HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) launched a major programme to boost technology and working practices in an overhaul that affects all aspects of its activities.

But an assessment of the progress of the project found the body faces a "daunting challenge" in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary.

The report from the National Audit Office (NAO) said: "Given the extent of changes planned, there is a very significant risk that, despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties, the full ambition of the change portfolio will prove to be undeliverable in the time available."

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff, lower the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million a year and reduce annual spending by £265 million.

Currently large parts of the service are still paper-based, or rely on manual data entry, while more than 70 systems are used to process cases across criminal and civil courts and tribunals.

The modernisation programme will see an increase in the use of "virtual hearings" in criminal cases, with judges and magistrates dealing with defendants from a police station or prison using a video link.

Accused individuals will be able to enter pleas online, removing the need for pre-trial hearings, while vulnerable witnesses will be allowed to give pre-recorded evidence rather than appear in court.

In lower-level cases, such as TV licence evasion, the reforms aim to allow the entire process to be completed on the internet.

Technology will also be at the forefront of efforts to reduce the number of cases requiring a physical hearing in the civil and family courts and tribunals.

The NAO said that despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties to reduce risks in delivering the change portfolio - including extending the timetable from four to six years, reducing the scope and scaling back planned benefits - delivering the reforms successfully remains "extremely challenging".

Officials estimate there will be a funding shortfall of £61 million in future years, assuming that the Treasury agrees that all previous years' under-spends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the gap could be £177 million.

HMCTS completed the first stage of the reforms in September 2017, but has made less progress overall than it had expected to at this stage, according to the watchdog.

Head of the NAO Sir Amyas Morse said: "Modernising the justice system is an ambitious challenge. HMCTS has improved its approach, but overall it is behind where it expected to be and significant risks remain."

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts committee, said: "The Ministry of Justice is seeking to modernise our justice system but needs to be clear about which of the promised benefits it will actually be able to deliver."

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood welcomed the "helpful and constructive" report.

She said: "We are pleased that the NAO acknowledges our 'early progress', and its recommendations are already helping to strengthen the way we run the programme.

"We are confident, therefore, that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it."

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