Overhaul of courts in England and Wales beset by problems, say MPs

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Problems with a £1.3bn government programme to modernise the courts in England and Wales have placed an “unacceptable” burden on the justice system, MPs have warned, as figures show a record number of serious criminal cases are taking more than two years to conclude.

The House of Commons public accounts committee said in a report published on Friday that it was “seriously concerned” about long-delayed reforms of the courts aimed at making the justice system more accessible and efficient.

Sweeping changes, some of which have been implemented, include virtual court hearings, online portals for divorce and probate applications, and digital case records.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the government agency responsible for implementation, had initially planned to complete them within four years but is now seven years in, according to the report.

In March officials extended the timetable for a third time and now propose to deliver most of the changes by next March, although they do not expect to fully roll out a digital “case management” platform until 2025, said the committee.

The report found the platform had been beset by “technical and functionality issues” that had “placed an unacceptable additional burden on the courts”.

“We are seriously concerned that, despite a long history of resets to the programme, HMCTS has had to revise and delay its plans again,” said the MPs.

Meanwhile, lawyers have warned that a case backlog is leaving victims and defendants waiting a long time for trials to conclude.

Official data released on Thursday showed that, as of the first quarter of this year, about 17,300 outstanding cases in crown courts — which deal with serious criminal offences including murder, rape and robbery — had been open for a year or more, equivalent to 29 per cent of the total.

Of these, more than 6,000 — or 10 per cent — were still outstanding after two years. This compares with only about 500, or 1 per cent, in the same period in 2014.

“The backlogs now faced pose a real threat to timely access to justice,” said Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the public accounts committee.

While the courts were “crying out” for reform, the committee’s report found HMCTS was “now rushing to introduce its [reform] plans following multiple delays”, she added.

Lubna Shuja
Lubna Shuja: ‘Reform is long overdue but mustn’t be done in a way that adds to the burden on judges, court staff, solicitors and barristers’ © Darren Filkins/Law Society

Lawyers said they shared the concerns. Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said: “Reform is long overdue but mustn’t be done in a way that adds to the burden on judges, court staff, solicitors and barristers who are already overstretched.”

The MPs said that, of its £1.3bn reform budget, HMCTS had only £120mn remaining to deliver remaining changes.

They expressed concern the agency had “moved some projects out of the [reform] programme into its business-as-usual activities”.

HMCTS had “burnt through almost its entire budget for a programme of reform only a little over halfway complete”, said Hillier.

The MPs’ findings follows a report into the same reforms by the National Audit Office, parliament’s spending watchdog, in February.

The NAO found the greatest problems were with the case management system for criminal courts, whose design was “beset with problems” and implementation was “having a detrimental impact”. Still, it said the system had “undoubtedly improved since its initial rollout”.

The Ministry of Justice said: “We are modernising our courts so they are fit for the 21st century and the digital services we have introduced have been used successfully over 2mn times.”

A spokesperson said: “The number of outstanding cases in the Crown Court remains lower than when the barristers’ strikes ended last year and the system is working at full capacity, with unlimited sitting days and more judges being recruited to restore the swift access to justice victims deserve.” 


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