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Closing courts to fling £700m at digital stand-ins will fail, MPs snarl at UK.gov

Beancounter says scheme's pitfalls keep him up at night

By Kat Hall, 29 Mar 2016

MPs from across the political spectrum have attacked the government's plan to close a further 86 courts while investing £700m in a court “digitisation” plan which has been flagged as “high risk”.

During the last Parliament the government closed 146 courts. It now has plans to close a further 86 courts and tribunals across England and Wales, leaving just over 300 courts remaining.

Instead the government hopes its £700m court modernisation plan will enable a more efficient use of the criminal justice system, by using video conferencing technology and better broadband.

However, the head of the government's Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Tony Meggs, named the court modernisation programme as one of three large government projects that is "keeping him awake at night" due to the programme's complexity.

The National Audit Office has also said the ambitious tech plan won't, in itself, be enough to improve efficiency.

MPs queued up to express their doubts about the government's plans in a Parliamentary debate held last Thursday.

Helen Hayes, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, said the closure plans "appear to put the cart before the horse—closing courts and tribunals without a clear plan for replacing the capacity that will be lost with new technology."

She said the introduction of new technology "is a very risky way to treat our justice system," adding there is no national plan for video links for witnesses to provide evidence, facilities for filing court papers online, or making pleas by mobile phones.

Richard Benyon, Conservative MP for Newbury, called on the government to ensure there will be proper provision for video conferencing in absence of physical courts.

Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend, said broadband connectivity is currently a "nightmare" in Wales: "These technologies are untested, unreliable and their use in court challenges the important principle of our justice system—the right to a fair trial and the right to face our accusers."

She added: "The Law Society of England and Wales has registered serious concerns about the use of video-link technology in magistrates court trials."

Christina Rees, Labour MP for Neath, said: "The Government’s case for the closures is underpinned by untested digital processes. According to the PCS trade union, the national roll-out of several digital products has been delayed because they were not fit for purpose.”

Robert Neill, Conservative MP for Bromley, noted that top legal eagle the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, has made the point "which I think we would all agree – that the government’s track record on IT projects was “not exactly shining”.

He added: "The Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder, had 'reservations' about the Department’s capacity to deliver the modernisation programme, and that is a point that I particularly wanted to make today."

He said there is "doubt about whether either the Ministry of Justice or HM Courts and Tribunals Service has the necessary technical and professional capacity to deliver on those issues. That concerns me as much in relation to the estates disposal programme as in relation to the digitisation programme.

He called on justice minister Shailesh Vara to explain how the government intends to strengthen its technical, managerial and professional expertise.

Responding to the criticism, Vara said the decision to close a court "is not one that I take lightly, but it is a decision that I am prepared to make when it is necessary to do so to support essential reform of our courts and tribunals system and to bring it up to modern-day standards. We need to create a modern and flexible Courts and Tribunals Service that is fit for the 21st century."

He added the modernisation programme will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with courts and tribunals. "We will provide new services and deliver better, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system. These reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier to use and more efficient," he said. ®

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