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Ministry of Justice wanted ICT to be nimble and data driven. For now it’s grappling with technical debt and running late

"One of the most outsourced government departments with major contracts to manage"

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

The UK’s justice system is weighed down with technical debt and struggling to meet its own targets to upgrade ICT systems and speed up the court system.

A raft of major projects due to be completed by the end of 2023 will not be wrapped up until March 2024, with one being kicked back until 2025.

At the same time, the expected savings the projects were due to deliver have been pared back dramatically.

The delays were revealed in the Ministry of Justice Departmental Overview 2022-23 produced by the National Audit Office for the Commons Justice Committee, and slipped out earlier this month.

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The report, designed to help the committee in its examination of the MoJ’s spending and performance, highlighted a number of ICT projects, including a prison technology transformation programme, and voice and video reprocurement.

Overall, ICT accounted for £433 million of the MoJ’s£10 billion spending in 2022-23. The biggest single spending category was “people costs” at over £5 billion, following by £1.93 billion on legal aid.

Of the six ICT projects the NAO examined, just two were considered likely to be delivered on time, on cost and with no major outstanding issues.

Three were ranked amber, with delivery on time, cost and quality “feasible”, but with “significant issues” requiring management attention to ensure no cost or schedule over-run. One ICT project gained a red taking, meaning successful delivery on cost, time and quality “appears to be unachievable”.

The report doesn’t detail the ICT projects in question and the NAO did not respond to a request for comment on this as The Stack published.

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However, it does explain that the £1.3 billion court reform programme overseen by HM Courts and Tribunals Service, and designed to shift away from paper-based systems to digital services has been hard going.

An earlier NAO report highighted that the priority had been delivering reforms at pace rather than “embedding sustainable change”.

The implementation of "common platform”, a system designed to allow legal professionals, including solicitors and the judiciary involved in a case, secure access to case information in one place was having a “detrimental impact” and “introducing risks to courts and the wider system”.

While the original deadline for the reforms was the end of 2023, the NAO says the MoJ now expects most programmes would now be completed by March 2024. Common platform, however, would not be completed until March 2025.

It said expected savings from the reform would come in at least £310 millio lower than the original 2019 forecast of £2.3 billion.

This is all happening against a rising backlog in cases in the criminal courts compared to before the pandemic. The Crown Court backlog was at its highest ever level in September 2023.

In the family courts, a 30% reduction in divorce petitions contributed to an overall fall in case loads. However, the NAO found that the rollout of a new case management system had created “data quality issues” which made it difficult to assess the timeliness of cases.

Overall, the NAO noted that the MoJ has the second largest number of major projects in the government’s Major Projects Portfolio and is also “one of the most outsourced government departments with major contracts to manage”. This extends beyond ICT, of course, with the MoJ managing the courts themselves, as well as prisons, tagging, probation and much more.

On digital, it’s worth noting that the MoJ’s own strategy hits all the right notes, at least to make it onto a conference programme. It aspires to be “nimble, using automation where is right to do so”. It wants to be data-driven, and user-led.

But the NAO also notes that the MoJ admits had has substantial technical debt – with all the inefficiencies, security risks, and future problems that implies.

“The MoJ acknowledges that its ability to reduce technical debt remains a challenge,” it states.

And, unfortunately, the NAO notes, “There is a growing discrepancy between demand for criminal justice services, primarily created by the police, who make arrests and charging decisions, and the supply of services, primarily provided by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).”

With the government looking to increase police numbers and impose tougher sentences, the pressures on the criminal courts and prisons will only increase. Pay remains a significant concern for both staff and contractors, as do staff ongoing shortages and high turnover.

This could all mean a bigger case backlog, and the NAO notes that delays tend to results in more not guilty pleas, which means longer cases, which means…well, you get the picture.