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Court closures loom as justice system reforms falter

13 September 2019

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Seventy-seven courts in England and Wales will close over the next seven years as part of the HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) modernisation project, a new National Audit Office (NAO) report has revealed.

In its latest report on the plans to reform the justice system to make it simpler and cheaper to run, the NAO said although progress has been made, HMCTS is behind schedule and faces “a significant challenge” to deliver its planned revamp on time and to budget.

HMCTS has closed 127 courts and tribunals since 2015, the report says, but has had to postpone future closures because of delays in completing other reforms.

It has also reduced its estimate of future court closures from 96 to 77 following a value for money assessment.

Although HMCTS has strengthened its approach to stakeholder engagement and is more transparent about the progress of its reforms, stakeholders have raised concerns that HMCTS is not being transparent enough in how it makes decisions, the report said – particularly when assessing access to justice.

“HMCTS needs to better understand the impact of its reforms, including how they are affecting users of the justice system.

"It should do this by publishing its data on the effects of court closures and using feedback on how new services are being received to inform the development of future reforms.

"As it enters the third stage of its reforms it must move from designing new services to ramping up their implementation,” the report said.

Some services are not yet fully available to the public because HMCTS has made less progress than anticipated, the report noted, and the scope of its wider reforms have also been reduced by cancelling two projects.

The timetable for the reform has also been extended to seven years – a year longer than original projections.

“While these changes do not affect the broad objectives of reform, they mean that lifetime savings have now fallen by £172m to £2.1bn.

"At the same time, the savings to date of £133m claimed by HMCTS may not all have directly resulted from its reforms.”

NAO comptroller and auditor general, Gareth Davies, commented: “HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services, but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions.

"The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.”

Responding to the report, Susan Acland-Hood, HMCTS CEO said: “We are pleased the NAO has recognised the progress we have made towards a more accessible and efficient justice system.

"More than 300,000 people have now used our online services, and two new service centres are making it easier and quicker for all to access help.

"This is an ambitious and challenging programme but it is already making a significant difference.

"We will continue to listen and learn, working closely with our stakeholders to improve and ensure reform delivers the full benefits to all those who use our justice system.”

However, Bar Council chair Richard Atkins QC warned that the modernisation programme “must not become the HS2 of the justice system”.

He said: “HMCTS’ court reform programme has once again come under critical examination by the NAO and once again it has been found wanting.

"Whilst the Bar Council is relieved to see that the planned court closures have been scaled back, we have previously expressed considerable concern about the lack of access to justice for people who find that they live many miles from their nearest court, and we remain concerned over the future.”

HMCTS clearly needs to look very carefully at its modernisation programme, he added.

“Whilst the aims are laudable, HMCTS must ensure that it does not put justice beyond the reach of many, or that costs rise and negate any supposed benefits from the proposed court closures.”

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