MoJ spending huge sums on consultants to help deliver digital courts
Critics express concerns, pointing to lack of detail about contracts as well as history of failure and delays in government IT projects
Liverpool crown court. £30m is being paid out to PwC as part of a £1bn drive to modernise the courts and expand the types of hearings that can be conducted via computer. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The Ministry of Justice is spending tens of millions of pounds on management consultants to help deliver online and digital court programmes that are designed to save money and improve access to justice.
The £30m is being paid to PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, as part of a £1bn drive to modernise the courts and expand the types of hearings that can be conducted via computer.
Another major contract, worth £1.3 million, has been won by the consulting firm Methods, which subcontracts some of the work to the outsourcing company Accenture to provide “change management strategy” to help guide the judiciary through until 2022. Additional undisclosed sums have been paid to EY, formerly Ernst and Young.
Few details of the scheme, which is being managed by the MoJ’s executive arm, HM Courts and Tribunal Service, have emerged but the tendering contract states that it aims to “transform our technology and to transform our own skills and capabilities”.
The senior judiciary, who will ensure new methods of working are consistent with legal requirements for a fair trial, have become intimately involved in supervising the programme.
The large sums are being spent at a time of widespread cuts to legal aid and crumbling infrastructure, with courthouses and prisons in need of repair.
Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate, questioned whether the scheme would improve access to justice.
“We recently learned that there are puddles of urine in the cells of Liverpool prison and Liam Allan was nearly convicted of rape because police and prosecution lack the resources to do their job,” she said. “Meanwhile the Ministry of Justice has paid over £30m to fund external management consultants to support ‘change management’ in their digital court reform programme.
“The management consultants are focused on ‘successful delivery’ but we don’t know what they are supposed to be delivering since there is no published plan for the digital court reform programme and the PWC contract isn’t published either.
“If they are being rewarded for increasing access to justice, that’s great, but can we see how that will be assessed?”
Given the history of failures and delays in major government IT projects, PwC’s financial rewards are being made dependent on successful delivery of the online and digital court programmes.
It is understood that a considerable proportion of the firm’s £30m fee is being spent on specialist suppliers and subcontractors. PwC will be expected to build up skills among HMCTS staff so they eventually take over responsibility for running the software.
Asked about the contract, an HMCTS spokesperson said: “This is the most ambitious programme of its kind anywhere in the world. We are investing more than £1bn over a six-year period to modernise outdated processes and create a swifter, more accessible and more efficient justice system for the public.
“Our contract with PwC replaces a number of contracts with external suppliers, and ensures we benefit from specialist skills to deliver our reforms and get best value for money for the taxpayer.”
It is unclear how many cases can be transferred out of the courtroom and on to a laptop screen. Successive MoJ economy drives have led to the closure of about 250 courts across England and Wales since 2011. They have been justified partially on the grounds of falling crime rates and partially on the need to develop more flexible working practices.
Civil cases that have been transferred online include applications for divorce, probate and small claims. Low-level offences such as fare evasion, traffic offences and fishing without a licence are among the first being dealt with online. More than 3,000 members of the public are said to have used pilot digital systems so far.
Asked about the type of cases going online earlier this month, the new lord chief justice said at his annual press conference that a new digital criminal case system had already saved the need to print 33m pages of paper.
“When we reach our goal, it should be possible for a very large number of civil disputes to be resolved using online facilities with appropriate judicial input when it is needed, but rarely requiring the parties to attend court,” said Lord Burnett of Maldon.
Whole categories of hearings such as listing cases, simple bail applications and entering pleas will “in future not require the routine attendance of everybody at court on every occasion”, he said. Telephone hearings had been routine in civil courts for 20 years, he added, what was important was that judges retained control of cases even if no one else was in court.
There have been concerns that online justice forms could make it too easy for unrepresented defendants to plead guilty in order to dispose of a court summons without realising that may result in a criminal record.
There has been some criticism that the judiciary is becoming too closely identified with the court modernisation programme. Andrew Langdon QC, a former chair of the Bar Council, said: “There is a risk that in the future we will evaluate our judges on their ability to be effective managers rather than fearless independent judges who are independent of the executive.”
Sourced from the Guardian