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£1.2bn modernisation of UK courts falling behind ambitions, PAC alleges

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Attempts to modernise the UK’s justice system under a £1.2bn package will prove to be “extremely challenging to deliver” according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In 2016 HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) launched a major programme to boost technology and working practices in a sweeping overhaul.

The plan is to transform the courts and tribunals system by changing the way people access justice by digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services.

Despite already extending its timetable from four to six years, HMCTS modernisation efforts “have already fallen behind” the PAC said in a new report.

The body alleged that HMCTS has only delivered two-thirds of what it expected to at this stage and still has not shared a sufficiently well-developed plan of what it is trying to achieve.

Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, said: “Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms.

“The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.”

The performance of HMCTS to date “shows that it has much to learn if it intends to do everything it plans”, according to the committee.

It also argued that HMCTS has not adequately considered how the reforms will impact access to, and the fairness of, the justice system for people using it.

Last year, attempts to introduce virtual court hearings were hamstrung after ministers said that the UK’s patchy broadband speeds would limit many rural communities from using the new online system. 

Under the new plans, accused individuals will be able to enter pleas online, removing the need for pre-trial hearings, while vulnerable witnesses will be allowed to give pre-recorded evidence rather than appear in court.

In lower-level cases, such as TV licence evasion, the reforms aim to allow the entire process to be completed on the internet.

Technology is also at the forefront of efforts to reduce the number of cases requiring a physical hearing in the civil and family courts and tribunals.

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said: “Significant progress is being made to deliver the programme, including new digital services which have seen high take-up and satisfaction rates.

“We do recognise the need to engage more actively with our key stakeholders, and this is a key priority over the next phase of reform.

“This is a challenging programme but we remain confident that it is on track to deliver the benefits promised and to help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system for all who use and need it.”

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