UK Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has told HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) that it has "much to learn" as it ploughs on with its ambitious £1.2bn court digitisation project.
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The PAC, which is the House of Commons' public sector spending watchdog, issued a report today criticising HMCTS for the speed of its reforms, which have involved large numbers of courts across the country being closed down and the hasty introduction of digital technology.
"HMCTS has not properly tested the use of new technology in accessing justice. Although HMCTS assured us that it is testing digital services, like online forms, with users, this does not amount to a proper evaluation of the wider impacts of the changes in the real world," said the PAC.
It also warned that the controversial "conviction by computer" plans pioneered by HMCTS, in which people accused of crimes will be encouraged to plead guilty from their phones and pay fines online instead of questioning what evidence the State has against them, could have "serious implications".
Moving services online without assessing the impact could have serious implications for users of the justice system. We share concerns raised by legal professionals and in written submissions that, without sufficient access to legal advice, people could make uninformed and inappropriate decisions about how to plead, and that the roll-out of virtual hearings could introduce bias and lead to unfair outcomes.
The six-year project, which was originally projected to last just four, is intended to save money by modernising the English and Welsh court systems. The £1.2bn outlay on the project is intended to reduce the number of physical court hearings in favour of online systems, as well as seeing the departure of 5,000 court staff.
At the project's intended end date of March 2023 HMCTS will, if the architects of this scheme get it right, be spending £265m a year less than they do at present. Unfortunately for the court system's admin bods, the PAC is not hopeful for them.
"We have little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme to bring the court system into the modern age," thundered the PAC. It accused HMCTS of failing to "articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like, which limits stakeholders' ability to plan for, and influence the changes."
It also warned of "unintended consequences" of wholesale court reforms, quoting lawyers who accused the government agency of paying "lip service" to consultations.
Responding to the report, HMCTS' chief exec, Susan Acland-Hood, said in a statement: “Significant progress is being made to deliver the programme, including new digital services which have seen high take-up and satisfaction rates. We will study the committee’s recommendations and respond in detail."
Legal sources told The Register they were furious over the wider impact of the changes, with one senior barrister saying: "We have a threadbare court estate crumbling before our eyes – toilets and lifts that don't work, roofs falling in – yet the ideological fervour of digitisation remains unabated without getting the basics right. Access to justice first, computers second."
"I feel my eyes glazing over at the thought of increased numbers of citizens being able to collect their criminal records online, seemingly without any 'advice stage' input from, say, the duty solicitor or indeed anyone except perhaps Professor Google," lamented pseudonymous blogger CrimBarrister on her blog. She told us: "£270m pissed up a wall on Common Platform already and they've apparently done a dozen cases through it or something."
The full Public Accounts Committee report can be read on the Parliament website. ®