Anyone who has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of using criminal, civil, family or tribunal courts pre-2020 will know they can be slow and difficult to navigate. British courts had a reputation for being inefficient and overly reliant on paper filings. The average case bounced off at least three different antiquated IT systems. Since 2011, this has fallen under the remit of His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).
HMCTS is also responsible for the bloated hotchpot estate from which to deliver justice. Simply put, the courts were designed for justice of a different time. The £400m maintenance backlog ensured many worked in dilapidated buildings. It is hardly conducive to supporting the victims, witnesses, families, and those soon-to-be guests of His Majesty’s Prison Service. Nor is it conducive to recruiting the 2,000 new judges needed to meet the present demand. Even with those challenges, court sitting days are at an all-time high.
What the FFF? What the CRP?
In 2018, under Chief Executive at the time Susan Acland-Hood, HMCTS published the Fit for the Future: transforming the Court and Tribunal Estate (FFF) consultation paper. FFF launched The Court Reform Programme (CRP) with a four-year £1bn budget (later ballooning to £1.3bn and seven years to March 2025). CRP set out to create a single case management system, saving £220m per year and provide courthouses with the maintenance and modernisation desperately needed.
Feedback from legal professionals on FFF gave HMCTS a clear mandate for reform and the embracement of modern technology. They endorsed the wider roll-out of online hearings, multi-court centres and renovations but err on the side of caution – that reform should not be at the expense of justice or the already overstretched workforce. The Secretary of State for Justice at the time (Rt Hon David Gauke) stated that technology should be the court’s servant and not its master.
The pandemic was a good thing for CRP because it proved all courts could operate online!
Launched in 2002, Money Claim Online (MCOL) has long demonstrated the benefit of digitising proceedings. Debt claims are processed three times faster than paper submissions. MCOL provided proof of concept and created an appetite for online courts long before FFF and CRP. According to HMCTS, technology should be at the heart of tomorrow’s judicial system. The danger of an easy access system is that it encourages individuals to present Ill-conceived, baseless claims, clogging up the courts as judicial spam.
Principles of CRP
Technology: initially development of the all-in-one case management system (CSM) was a joint venture between HMCTS and the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2021, a rethink saw HMCTS take full ownership, scrapping CSM development at a cost of £21m in favour of a single interface known as The Common Platform (CP). This would combine new and existing systems across the criminal, civil, family and tribunal courts under a single interface. CP is a one-stop shop from first filing to final verdict, accessed by everyone from litigants in person to the Lord Chief Justice. Another development of CRP is to make online hearings more readily available and counter the reluctance of judges to use them. New onsite Digital Support Officers assist users and reduce downtime.
Real Estate: historically, courts and their surrounding rooms serve a single purpose. As part of CRP, the refurbishment of real estate will create more multi-court centres where criminal, civil, family and tribunal courts can alternately operate in the same space with minimal adjustments. Pilots of permanent multi-court centres were first rolled out in Birmingham, Cardiff, and Hull. The use of Nightingale (temporary) multi-courts during the pandemic proved the concept worked, which is why 24 still exist today.
Single Justice Service: the creation of a Single Justice Service allows minor offences (TV licence evasion, fare hopping, driving without insurance etc.) to be determined without a hearing when the defendant pleads guilty or fails to respond. A magistrate, supported by an advisor, rules on non-imprisonable, victimless offences from their chambers. Social security and child support appeals can also be logged and decided online.
Criticism of CRP
The need for reform was never in question; how best to implement it was. CRP has come in for criticism, as we shall now see.
The Bar Council: after complaining the CP helpline is not 24/7 despite its members working irregular hours, The Bar Council went on to claim CP developers lack an understanding of how the courts function to the point where ambition runs beyond the capacity to deliver. They also criticised a lack of training and the absence of some core functions. In response, HMCTS sighted its use of User Engagement Groups to garner feedback. The council were not alone in highlighting a mismatch in court listings to barrister availability, resulting in wasted preparation and court time.
Law Society: having raised concern over cases disappearing off the system and the frequency with which CP malfunctions and interrupts live court sittings, the Law Society reiterated that functions need to be robustly tested and evaluated before being rolled out. Questions remain over how CP will be funded post-2025 completion to ensure it remains fit for purpose. The society also stated some of their disabled lawyers and employees find CP falls short of their accessibility needs.
Transform Justice: the charity has taken issue with online hearings, saying they make it harder for participants to interpret body language, read the room, and interact with proceedings. Technology risks diluting the impact and cathartic value of witness statements and sentences when delivered remotely. Transform Justice also questioned the decision to build bespoke digital platforms when the likes of Zoom and Dropbox are readily available and more familiar. HMCTS sighted off-the-shelf products do not offer the same security, nor do they provide the same gravitas. The charity also expressed concern that one in three defendants have no legal counsel, yet CP is geared towards legal professionals.
Public & Commercial Services Union: in 2022-23, the courts faced several days of industrial action by the Public & Commercial Services Union (PCS) over pay, conditions, jobs and CP. Strikes were called off when HMCTS gave assurance action would be taken to combat CP-related stress, anxiety and a culture of blame against the union’s members. The PCS has vowed to continue its campaign to get CP scrapped.
Public Accounts Committee: notorious for examining whether taxpayers get value for money, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are of the view HMCTS have continually underestimated the time, cost, and complexity of reform. They also reiterated concerns of underdeveloped software being put live for the sake of ticking boxes. The committee claims HMCTS has not done enough to engage, listen and respond to feedback.
HMCTS admitted that during the period 2021-22, a software issue prevented delivery of 3,000 notifications, resulting in 35 defendants not being fitted with electronic tags before release. HMCTS also admitted that CP is set to deliver fewer savings than initially expected. With just under two years before completion, CRP is live in most courts and over 50% of modules are live. Self-service is a success, notably in divorce, probate, and welfare cases. Form submission times and rejection rates are down; for the first time, fees can be paid online 24/7, along with evidence submission and service acknowledgements. Online hearings are now commonplace, with remote attendance offered by 70% of courts. In short, CRP is on track and meeting expectations.
The CRP is NOT hitting the fan!
It’s true that £1.3bn seems a lot of money for people to log in and access information. References to Zoom and Dropbox haven’t gone unnoticed, with the former costing $7.25m to launch and the latter a mere $3m. Going 30% over budget and getting CRP right is easier to justify than gifting freedom to the guilty because of bean counters. HMCTS weren’t just redesigning the jet engine mid-flight; when you factor in having to incorporate swathes of new legislation on the fly, a pandemic, and understaffed courts, they’ve also got to land the plane in a category-five hurricane. The history books won’t define CRP by its underestimated costs and overestimated savings, but it will be judged on whether justice is ultimately better served. From our own experience here at Advocate Debt Recovery, justice has never been easier to access.