In 2018, more than £1b was allocated to HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) over a seven-year period with the intention of modernising the courts and tribunals system. The PAC report published in June 2023 noted that there’s approximately £120m of that budget left, with little more than half the planned projects completed. The report also expressed its concerns at the delays in delivering the reforms, accrediting them to the “HMCTS’ consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity of these reforms”5. Although this is most applicable to the much-maligned ‘Common Platform’ for criminal cases, it also applies to those civil court workstreams.
Law Society President Lubna Shuja highlights “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. Neither should it make the long delays faced by court users worse”6. But with timescales for completed work often reset, there’s no doubt this is not only costly, but also a source of frustration for court staff and users alike. It’s clear that a significant sum of money is required to overhaul the way our courts work, but it’s evident a proper plan and realistic timescales are also critical for success.
Success also means that the system works for everyone. There are real concerns that vulnerable users are being left behind. Vulnerable users may require additional support to navigate the justice system as it gets more and more digital. Approximately around 7% of households in the UK don’t have access to the internet, with the elderly and financially vulnerable most likely to be affected.7 HMCTS has recognised that some user groups are at risk of digital exclusion from accessing justice, but we’re yet to see how they resolve this issue.
Stakeholders must be a key part of the reform process to ensure sustainability and suitability of any new way of working. It’s important HMCTS engage with those using new systems, and ironically, perhaps look to slow down the pace at which they’re launched. This will help to ensure they get it right first time. Solicitors are too familiar with portals which have been rushed, which just result in more delays and frustrations than before. Given how often court staff are intervening with manual overrides or inputting to take account of the inadequacies of systems, it’s clear delays aren’t being mitigated.