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NAO: technology can improve efficiency - but justice system must pull together

David Bicknell Published 01 March 2016

Watchdog's report warns system is not delivering value for money; digitisation may help but MoJ must heed IT project lessons from others


A National Audit Office (NAO) report into efficiency in the criminal justice system has found that although the management of cases has improved in the last five years, in general the criminal justice system is not delivering value for money.

Improving technology and digitisation of courts will help improve efficiency. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is investing £700m in modernising the courts, both to reduce the costs of the estate and to transform the way in which justice is administered using technology and deliver an improved service at lower cost through the courts reform programme.

And both the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) are leading an initiative to introduce a single online case management system covering the entire process from pre-charge to disposal, with all parties having access to one digital case file.

The MoJ's reform plans to transform the system depend on introducing new information technology, and embedding a culture of digital working within different organisations. The NAO believed this will address one of the long-standing problems with the system highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee in May 2014: that there had been slow progress in improving IT, and there were still too many disparate systems, which failed to operate together.

But in its latest report, the NAO warned, "We have examined many IT-enabled change projects. Our experience suggests that these are very difficult to deliver well, and the government does not have a good track record in this area. The Ministry must learn from the challenges encountered on other programmes if it is to deliver these change programmes successfully."

Some of the risks it will need to overcome include:

- delays to delivering the IT elements
- failure to understand the needs of users
- failure to ensure buy-in among users of the new system; and
- optimism bias in estimating costs and benefits.

The NAO also said that the MoJ is constrained in introducing new technology in some areas by the nature of the court estate, with particular challenges in adapting historic or listed buildings. Moving to a "predominantly digital way of working" represents "significant cultural change" for many areas of the system, which are very paper-based and which "rely on manual entry onto ageing IT systems."

The programme will only work if all parties can be persuaded of the benefits, so, the NAO suggested, "it is important to ensure the participation of other criminal justice partners such as the defence community."

It added that one of the most common challenges in delivering IT-enabled change is to focus all ofthe attention on the technology, and not enough on the users.

"On one of our case study visits, we were told that the judiciary were keen to support and prepare for digital working, but that they were unable to secure the necessary training: some members would like to be able to learn how to touch type, and had identified a course, but were unable to find funding to pay for it. We cannot say whether this is a widespread concern across the system, but it is illustrative of the problems that can arise for these types of programmes," the NAO said.

In its report, the NAO said there have been some improvements in the management of cases since 2010-11, with the proportion of effective trials (those that go ahead as planned) in the magistrate's court increasing from 34% in the year ending September 2011 to 39% in the year ending September 2015.

The NAO found, however, that two-thirds of cases still do not progress as planned, and there is significant regional variation in the performance of the system.

It pointed out that a victim of crime in North Wales has a 7 in 10 chance that the trial will go ahead at Crown Court on the day it is scheduled, whereas in Greater Manchester the figure is only 2 in 10. The large variation in performance across the country means that victims and witnesses experience very different levels of service. Trials that collapse or that are delayed create costs for all the participants, including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), victims, witnesses, defence lawyers and Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the NAO said.

In 2014-15, the CPS spent £21.5m on preparing cases that were not heard in court. Of this £5.5m related to cases that collapsed due to 'prosecution reasons', including non-attendance of prosecution witnesses and incomplete case files. Backlogs in the Crown Court increased by 34% between March 2013 and September 2015, and waiting time for a Crown Court hearing increased from 99 days to 134 over the same period.

The MoJ and the CPS are leading an "ambitious reform programme" which includes enabling more efficient digital working and the roll-out of a single digital case management system accessible by all parties. According to the NAO, this will provide the tools for a more efficient, less paper-based system, but it is not sufficient on its own.

"The system as a whole is inefficient because its individual parts have strong incentives to work in ways that create cost elsewhere. For example, courts staff acting under judicial direction, seek to ensure that courts are in use as much as possible by scheduling more trials than can be heard so that there are back ups when one trial cannot proceed. This is both a cause and a result of the inefficiencies in the system, and leads to costs elsewhere, such as witnesses who spend a day waiting to give evidence for a trial that is not then heard," it said.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office said, "Delays and aborted hearings create extra work, waste scarce resources, and undermine confidence in the system. Some of the challenges are longstanding and complex - others are the results of basic avoidable mistakes. The ambitious reform programme led by the Ministry, HMCTS, CPS and Judiciary has the potential to improve value for money by providing tools to help get things right first time, but will not in itself address all of the causes of inefficiency.

"It is essential that the criminal justice system pulls together and takes collective responsibility for sorting out the longstanding issues."


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