Access to Justice and Modernising the Courts: the sound of one hand clapping

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has replied today to the high level House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on the access to justice evaluation of its court modernisation programme. Read it and hear the sound of one hand clapping.

The command of the PAC was for the HMCTS ‘to write to the Committee by January 2019, setting out how it will identify and evaluate the impact of changes on people’s access to, and the fairness of the justice system, particularly in relation to those who are vulnerable’ HMCTS just missed the deadline but has chosen to construe this as a metaphysical question about how such an evaluation might be done – not actually how it is doing it.

The HMCTS original response contained a lot of guff about its agile methodology: ‘HMCTS has adapted an agile methodology and works with users during the design and testing stages of each new service to ensure the process is accessible and as clear and simple as possible. HMCTS use phased implementation of changes so that re-designed services can be tested in practice and any emerging issues rapidly addressed. HMCTS regularly monitor reformed services and use this feedback to make continuous improvements to the services. HMCTS share lessons, learning and components with other projects across the programme, to build good straight forward services. Feedback on HMCTS reformed services has been extremely positive and over 90% of users of the new online divorce, civil money claims and probate services are satisfied or very satisfied with the service.’

This, as any A level teacher would observe, is not answering the question. It is a statement of HMCTS’ working methodology. HMCTS is condemning itself to a marginal pass here at best.

The HMCTS response repeats much of its initial reply but only in greater detail and there will, no doubt, much relief that ‘overall approach to evaluating, assessing and reviewing the reform programme is built into a multi-tiered design …’ But, alas, what the committee wants is so complicated that it will take quite a time and the actual commitment is:

‘i. to have completed the scoping stage of this work, and have the advisory panel (further details below) in place, by the end of Spring 2019;

ii. to have commissioned any further research for the evaluation, and publish a call for relevant evidence from academics by the end of the Summer 2019, if required;

iii. on that basis, we would be aiming to complete an interim report by Summer 2021. There will also be regular updates throughout the evaluation, as findings become available.

iv. The intention would then be to continue to evaluate the programme at regular intervals as the reform programme is concluded.’

No doubt, some of the evaluation is difficult and will take time. But, take small claims and tribunal cases. Are the reforms intended to increase the number of cases coming through the courts? Or divert them? What are the planning assumptions that must have been made in terms of numbers of cases to be processed and at what cost? These are the sort of questions that you sort out before you start a project. Ask yourself how Amazon would have undertaken digitalising small claims: it would set itself the aim of processing x cases at y cost in z time. Public bodies fascination with the private sector has always been rather limited.

There will, of course, be more consultation.’We will be establishing an advisory panel to support analysts as well as Ministers on the evaluation. Our intention is to draw on a wide range of external expertise, including academics and legal practitioners, as well as those who have practical experience in the delivery of significant reform programmes. The Panel’s role will be to ensure that analysts and Ministers benefit from a wide range of external, expert advice on how the evaluation can best be undertaken. We will also be seeking the views of the senior judiciary to explore how we can make the best use of the expertise they can bring to the evaluation. Full details of the panel, and their terms of reference, will be published in Spring 2019.’

All this might suggest that the HMCTS is generally a bit cavalier in assessing its reforms, were it not for the care that it takes on tracking savings: ‘We are refreshing our approach to benefits management to ensure a benefits-led approach across the portfolio, in line with Cabinet Office best practice. Tools, such as benefits dashboards at portfolio and programme levels, are also being developed to facilitate the easier dissemination of benefits information in a timely manner for decision making to drive and enhance a benefits-led approach and also to track the realisation of benefits against the programme’s critical success factors and operational metrics.’

O tempora, o mores.

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