The MA has responded to the Public Accounts Committee's call for written evidence on the court modernisation programme following the publication of the National Audit Office report Early progress in transforming courts and tribunals.
The response welcomes the underlying aims of the reform agenda to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the courts, while delivering significant savings. We noted, however, the concerns raised in the National Audit Office (NAO) report regarding the challenge presented by the proposed scale of change, that less progress has been made than was originally planned, with increased costs and reduced benefits.
We highlighted our members' concerns, echoing those of the NAO that the programme is running behind schedule and that even though HM Courts and Tribunals Service has increased the time available by two years, it will be challenging to complete on time. There are gaps in funding, and it is unclear how these gaps will be covered if HM Treasury does not agree that all previous years' underspends can be carried forward. The NAO report that 'the programme at greatest risk of not achieving its outcome is the Common Platform Programme'. This is integral to many of the changes to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the justice system and it is therefore imperative that there are detailed plans in place in case this programme is not successfully delivered.
In the response, the MA also set out our members' more fundamental concerns about some aspects of the reform agenda, including: the risk that efficiency will come at the expense of ensuring a fair process for all; the lack of detail as to how the reformed services will work in practice; the lack of clarity about the cohesiveness of the whole structure; and the risk that restrictions to transparent and open processes will impact negatively on both public confidence and perceptions of the legitimacy of the system. The response references, in particular, the proposals to introduce automated convictions, the potential for criminal proceedings that lack openness and transparency, including due to an increased use of virtual hearings; and a reduction in judicial discretion if decisions are taken out of the hands of judicial office holders.
The call for evidence can be found here.
The MA response can be found here.