Additional pressures placed on criminal justice system by rushed court reforms
A new report published today (23 February) by the National Audit Office (NAO) says that hasty implementation of reforms by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has increased the burden on courts which are already under pressure to reduce a huge backlog of cases, echoing concerns raised by the Law Society of England and Wales.
Law Society of England and Wales president Lubna Shuja said: “We support the government’s investment in a reform programme to modernise and improve court services, however those reforms must not come at the expense of justice.
“Our concern, reflected in the NAO’s report, is that delays in the courts are being exacerbated by ineffective reforms, which are costing more time and wasting money.”*
Pace of reform programme
The court reform programme was launched in 2016 and was due to officially wrap up by December of this year. The NAO report reveals that HMCTS does not expect to meet its deadline.
Lubna Shuja said: “We ask that HMCTS clarifies what the updated timeline is to deliver the full programme, and whether there will be funding for its projects** to be sustained in the future.”
“The complexity of the reform programme was underestimated by HMCTS, and rolling out reformed technology quickly, such as the Common Platform, has had a detrimental impact on courts.
“New technology should only be fully implemented once it has been robustly tested, evaluated and proven to work. Otherwise, as we have heard from members and seen in the court staff strikes over the Common Platform rollout, it will only cause further setbacks in the system.
“The NAO reveals that between June 2021 and August 2022, HMCTS found that due to the faulty technology 35 individuals were not fitted with an electronic monitoring tag when they should have been.***
“This is a striking real-world example of how introducing a new system before it is ready introduces risks to the wider criminal justice system.” Lubna Shuja added.
Improving the accessibility of information on all the individual projects within the widescale reform programme is vital. User information for all services should be held in a centralised format.
“We encourage HMCTS to ensure full transparency and engagement with our members – solicitors – and others affected by the reform programme.
“The NAO is right to recommend HMCTS seeks to better understand how efficiently reformed services are working. Consistent and timely data collection for this purpose would help ensure this.
“It’s good to see our contributions to the report, which were provided through focus groups with our members and a separate meeting with the NAO, have been taken into account in their assessment of the reform programme. We hope that these suggestions contribute to the overall success of the HMCTS programme and an effective, modernised court system that works for all users.
“We must not equivocate when it comes to pointing out the successes and failures of HMCTS reforms. We hope that alongside our five-point plan to tackle the courts backlog, this will help the government resolve problems in the courts and tribunal service.”
Notes to editors
Outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts have risen from 337,805 in November to 342,180 in December 2022.
** Various services are still in their testing phase or, like the Possession Project, in the very early stages of being developed. The pandemic led to some aspects of the programme being paused, while others accelerated to meet the needs of the courts in lockdown. This added delay has increased cost pressures, despite the programme’s budget increasing by around 10% in 2021.
***See page 33, paragraph 2.10 of the report.
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