Poor data sharing is holding back the UK court system's pandemic recovery, says National Audit Office

Lack of data for planning also a problem, spending watchdog finds

The UK court system's failure to implement its own recommendations for improving data sharing is holding back its recovery from the pandemic, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The government spending watchdog has reported on progress in reducing the backlog in criminal courts, which stood at 60,692 in the Crown Court in June, a 48 per cent increase on March 2020, when the first UK's pandemic lockdown was introduced.

"The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the work of the criminal justice system and necessitated extensive changes in criminal courts to keep judges, court staff, and users safe," the report said.

In fact, the Crown Court backlog increased by 23 per cent in the year leading up to the pandemic, the NAO said [PDF].

Since the onset of the pandemic, Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) recovery programme increased criminal court capacity by 30 per cent in the Crown Court and 7 per cent in magistrates' courts between September 2020 and July 2021.

However, long-standing limitations in collecting data make it difficult for the Ministry of Justice or the courts system to understand future demand, the report said.

In 2019, the HMCTS's own report, Digital Justice, set out wide-ranging findings on the extent of data limitations.

"HMCTS has yet to implement the recommendations in full. The pandemic has exacerbated these long-standing data challenges, bringing into focus the data the Ministry and HMCTS need to develop to better understand and manage flow through the system," the report said [PDF].

"The Ministry recognises that it will need substantial investment in analytical capability to resolve other data issues, including disjointed data across the system. It is aiming to publish, in autumn 2021, a new scorecard to make national performance more transparent," it added, calling for a robust strategy for "data collection, analysis and sharing" in the courts system.

"Urgent attention must be given to designing a medium-term solution for data sharing that reduces the burden on HMCTS," it said.

Alex Case, public sector industry principal at automation specialist Pegasystems, said: "The NAO report is sober reading. While more capacity is critical and MoJ has some innovative ideas for this, there needs to be total focus on how the backlog can be tackled through an overhaul of how the justice systems process cases and verdicts."

HMCTS is in the midst of a £1bn technology programme involving over 50 projects to improve court and tribunal services, bringing new technology and modern ways of working, according to documents published in 2018.

But the courts system has struggled with technology change. In 2019, a report from Parliament's spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, found that the reforms had been repeatedly pushed back without showing any cost savings.

An earlier NAO report criticised the troubled £280m Common Platform Programme, the digital case-handling system intended to join up the case management process across HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the police, which had made less progress than anticipated. ®

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