Watchdog reports major concerns with progress of controversial £1.2bn courts reform programme

A CONTROVERSIAL £1.2bn modernisation of the justice system, which is seeing courts close in favour of ‘virtual justice’, is behind schedule and facing funding gaps, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has warned.

The news comes just two weeks after The Yorkshire Post reported serious concerns from legal figures about the progression of the reforms.

In 2016 HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) launched a major programme to boost technology and working practices.

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.”

Yorkshire has lost a third of its court buildings since 2010 under cost-cutting reforms.

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.

But last month, solicitors told The Yorkshire Post that much of the promised technology was either still in early trial stages or was not reliable. Poor WiFi, unreliable video links and even a lack of power sockets were among the problems being reported.

The NAO said that despite the best efforts of HMCTS and other parties to make adjustments - including extending the timetable from four to six years and reducing the scope - delivering the reforms successfully remains “extremely challenging”.

Officials estimate there will be a funding shortfall of £61m 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 £177m.

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.”

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood thanked the NAO, saying its recomendations were already helping to strengthen the programme.

She said: “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.”