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Better use of tech can help MoJ deliver value for money

NAO report highlights potential of tech to drive efficiency in Criminal Justice System.

The National Audit Office report ‘Efficiency in the criminal justice system’, published recently, concluded that the criminal justice system “is not currently delivering value for money.” The report did note that case management has improved since 2010, and highlighted current efforts within the Ministry of Justice to reduce inefficiencies and save costs via improved use of technology. However, the NAO warned that there were clear risks to successful delivery of these programmes. Having examined many IT-enabled change projects in the past, in their view the government does not have a good track record in this area, and so the MoJ “must learn from the challenges encountered on other programmes if it is to deliver these change programmes successfully.”

The report found that there are significant inefficiencies in the system. Two-thirds of cases do not progress as planned, and delays or collapse of trials generate costs not only for government agencies like the CPS and MH Courts and Tribunals Service, but also for victims, witnesses and lawyers. Last year the Crown Prosecution Service spent £21.5 million on cases that do not go to trial. The study also revealed that there is significant regional variation in efficiency and performance of the CJS, with the probability of a case going to trial varying widely among different regions. “The large variation in performance across the country means that victims and witnesses will experience very different levels of service.” Furthermore, since March 2013 there has been a 34% increase in the backlog of cases in the Crown Court, while the waiting time for a Crown Court hearing has gone up from 99 days to 134.

However, the NAO also praised the “ambitious reform programme led by the Ministry” which has “the potential to improve value for money by providing tools to help get things right first time.” This includes the £700 million investment that the MoJ is going to make in modernising the courts, using technology to transform the way in which justice is administered, deliver an improved service, and reduce costs, as stated in the MoJ’s Single Departmental Plan. The report also singles out the Common Platform Programme, a joint initiative being led by the CPS and HMCTS to develop a single online case management system, including an integrated digital case file to which all parties have access. The case file would cover the entire process, from police gathering evidence to disposal of the case. This programme has potential for significant efficiency gains, as is expected to save £425 million over 10 years.

In order to realise the gains promised by use of new digital technologies, the report identifies certain risks that the MoJ will need to overcome, based on the experiences of other government departments in implementing new IT systems and embedding a culture of digital working into organisations. The MoJ must learn the lessons from other government programmes. The four key risks singled out are: 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 report gives particular weight to ensuring buy-in from people who will be using the new systems, saying that “one of the most common challenges in delivering IT-enabled change is to focus all of the attention on the technology, and not enough on the users.”

If these challenges can be overcome then clearly efficiency in the system can be greatly improved. But Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, warned that improved technology alone would 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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