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HMCTS: MPs’ report on courts modernisation unbalanced

1 November 2019

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HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has attracted stinging criticism from MPs for triggering a court system in chaos and struggling to explain its vision for reform. 

In the Justice Select Committee’s report on court and tribunal reforms, published on 31 October, MPs said it received “powerful evidence” of a court system in administrative chaos and serious staff shortages, including a lack of front-line court staff which has compromised access to justice.

While acknowledging that modernisation is long overdue, MPs were particularly concerned that “enhancing access to justice appears to be ancillary to the reform programme rather than being adopted as its central goal”.

It found the scale of court closures has caused “alarming” travel difficulties for many court users; and the dilapidated state of existing court buildings, some of which lack basic provisions such as disabled facilities, are “unacceptable and must be addressed”.
 
The committee made clear HMCTS must not go ahead with deeper staffing cuts as intended unless it is confident of being able to provide an acceptable service.
 
The report set out a number of recommendations including that HMCTS should develop technological solutions to support open justice in consultation with the senior judiciary, and setting up a working group of senior judiciary to consider protecting media access to proceedings.
 
The committee had earlier called for pop-up courts to be set up in non-traditional courts buildings in every area where a court has been closed in the past decade.

Committee chair Bob Neill MP said: “We ask the government to pause for breath to make sure that everyone of us who needs the court system―to manage a divorce, to seek fair payment, or to get through family cases and criminal cases―must be able to get to court, to access justice, where and when they need to.”

However, HMCTS has rejected the MPs’ report as unbalanced.

HMCTS’s chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said: “We don’t believe the report presents a balanced assessment of reform, but along with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary, will take the time to carefully address the committee’s findings and respond fully in due course.”

She added: “Improving access to justice is at the heart of our courts and tribunals reform programme.

“Change will always challenge the status quo. But by re-designing the justice system around those who use it, we can provide more accessible, comprehensible and user-friendly services.”

Since the modernisation programme began, HMCTS has launched online services for divorce, probate, money claims and social security appeals and started using the ‘common platform’ in the magistrates’ courts.

In response to the MPs' report, HMCTS said it used to reject 40 per cent of paper divorce applications as they were incorrectly filled in; whereas out of more than 65,000 applications made using the new online divorce service, the rejection rate has dropped to under 1 per cent.

However, the committee urged HMCTS to publish “ambitious targets” for divorce completion times – a further area of concern.

Acland-Hood commented: “We will continue to prioritise the needs of all users, particularly the most vulnerable, as we progress the programme.”

The committee called for HMCTS to confirm that cost savings and efficiencies take second place to access to justice in its vision for reform.

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