HMCTS ‘behind where it expected to be’ in reform programme

A new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) says HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is behind where it expected to be at this stage of its ambitious reform programme – and that it faces a daunting challenge in delivering the scale of technological and cultural change necessary to modernise the justice system and achieve required savings.

In 2016, HMCTS set up a portfolio of change programmes to introduce new technology and working practices to reform and upgrade the justice system. The planned changes affect every aspect of HMCTS’s activities.

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer full-time equivalent staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual spending by £265m. As well as making savings, HMCTS believes the reformed system will work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately and make processes more accessible to users.

Despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties to reduce risks in delivering this 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. The NAO believes there is a significant risk that HMCTS will not be able to achieve all it wants within the time available.


Funding shortfall

In the report, HMCTS estimates there will be a funding shortfall of £61m in future years, assuming that HM Treasury agrees that all previous years’ underspends can be carried forward. Without this agreement, the funding gap could be £177m.

HMCTS completed the first stage of the reforms in September 2017. While one area has performed better than anticipated (the estates reform project has generated more income than expected), there have been significant delays in developing and delivering the Common Platform case management system, a key component of HMCTS’s programme to move from a paper-based to a fully digital system.

Challenges exist in delivering the change portfolio, such as its reliance on other organisations to invest in new technology and change working practices, whilst having limited influence over these groups. HMCTS is also reliant on new legislation being introduced for some elements of the reforms, such as the planned extension of virtual hearings, which remains uncertain. Without this legislation, HMCTS may have to make changes to the planned reforms, which is likely to cause further delays, increase costs and reduce benefits.



The NAO recommends that HMCTS works with Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and other organisations in the justice system to jointly anticipate and manage possible adverse consequences of the planned changes.

HMCTS must also provide more detail on how the modernised services will work in practice, what has already happened and what else needs to be done. It should provide greater transparency of its objectives and progress and be clear how it is adapting plans in response to challenges. Being open in this way will help ensure taxpayers and stakeholders have a clearer picture of what is happening, and can hold HMCTS to account for its performance.

Commenting on the HMCTS transformation plans, Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO 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. Not only could these delay improvements being delivered on time, the tight timetable could also force HMCTS to make changes before fully understanding the consequences for the justice system.

“HMCTS must continue to adapt its approach if it hopes to successfully deliver a modern justice system that works better for everyone and achieve necessary savings for the taxpayer.”



Responding to the NAO report, HMCTS CEO Susan-Acland-Hood said: “Today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO) is helpful and constructive, and rightly highlights the ambitious and transformational nature of the courts and tribunals reform programme.

“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.”

The NAO report reflects progress during the first phase of the £1bn court reform programme. This year, HMCTS has opened up new services to the public and scaled up its delivery, including:

  • A new fully accessible online Civil Money Claims service giving the public the ability to make a small claim online – with over 3,000 claims issued in the first month, cases moving through more quickly, and user satisfaction over 80% during the pre-launch pilot;
  • A new system for applying for divorce online, which has cut errors in application forms from 40% to less than 1%, saving the public time and trouble as well as making our system more efficient;
  • new probate system in testing which has also cut errors, speeds up the process, and has a satisfaction rate in excess of 90%;
  • The first-ever fully video hearing took place in the tax tribunal as part of a pilot to test the potential for the use of video more broadly across the courts and tribunals system;
  • The national roll-out of a new in-court system to record the results of cases digitally and instantly;
  • A national Track Your Appeal service in social security and child support tribunals, allowing thousands of users, many vulnerable, to be kept informed about the progress of their Personal Independent Payment appeal.

Acland-Hood added: “We welcome each of the report’s recommendations and are committed to implementing measures to address them. The NAO report has highlighted some areas for us to focus on as the programme continues, and will help us ensure that this vital programme of reform is delivered effectively and efficiently.”

The full report can be accessed here.

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