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January 2, 2018

Why is the courts service spending at least £30 million on management consultants?

I had heard through the grapevine that the courts service in England and Wales (HMCTS) were using management consultants in their digital court reform programme. This information was not in any “stakeholder-facing” communication, or on the HMCTS website, but I heard the names EY, Accenture and PWC were all involved. But even I was surprised when I looked on the EU procurement site and saw that the HMCTS change management consultancy contract was for £30 million. This was won by PWC – I have not tracked down the value of the other additional contracts won by Accenture and EY (and maybe others). Oddly, it is announced nowhere on the PWC website. The consultants have been contracted to support the court reform programme which involves

  • digitising files and backroom processes
  • creating online court processes across civil, administrative and criminal justice
  • creating virtual courts (where no-one is in the physical court room) and expanding the use of video and telephone hearings

The management consultants are not actually creating or testing the digital hardware but supporting change. So why does HMCTS need to spend so much on consultants, particularly ones who will have no particular expertise in the courts system?  I think its because the government has committed to the Treasury to complete the reform programme within incredibly tight timescales.  Whenever government departments need to do things quickly they tend to turn to management consultants who can gear up quickly…for a price.

I have a number of concerns about the £30 million plus being spent on management consultants by the courts service

1. The courts, legal aid and prisons are starved of resources. There are rats running through our prisons, criminal defence deserts and court buildings are literally crumbling. The other day a barrister tweeted: “my trial at Southwark is drawing to an end. Over the 8 weeks or so there has been a bucket to catch urine from the male advocate’s toilet. Presumably some poor soul empties it every night. For 5 weeks the mens loo by court was broken and taped off”. In these circumstances £30m plus on management consultants looks as if it could have been better spent elsewhere. HMCTS and the Treasury will say that the money is for “capital expenditure” but why not invest in actual courts and prisons rather than in change management?

2.   The reform programme is short of evidence that it will makes things better – that it will improve access to justice and effective participation. There is no research to back up the reforms and I don’t think the government is intending to do academic research or measure outcomes (eg of existing virtual hearings) before embarking on this £1 billion programme. Someone who works on the HMCTS reform programme recently bemoaned they do not have enough money to do “academic” research. It seems somewhat foolhardy to spend £30 million plus on management consultants to implement a programme, if you have not allocated any money (or time) to do proper research.

3. The reforms have not been subject to public consultation or scrutinised or approved by parliament. So we are spending millions of public money on reforms which have not been subject to democratic processes; spending money on reforms for which there is no overall published plan. And which may not be agreed by, or even put to, parliament. Clearly the abandonment of the Prisons and Courts Bill (which encompassed the main reform proposals) in April 2017 was inconvenient, but surely the democratic thing to do would have been to wait until the forthcoming Courts Bill was passed before charging ahead with reforms?

4. The senior judiciary, who are concerned about resources for courts, legal aid and their own renumeration have agreed the reform spend (on the programme overall and on the management consultants) since three senior judges sit on the board of HMCTS – the PWC and other management consultancy contracts are HMCTS contracts. I fear this expenditure (and the lack of publicity about it) will only fuel recent criticism that the judiciary have become too embroiled in policy: “if judges become too closely identified with a programme of modernisation where success is dependent on funding and implementation by the Executive, 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” (Andrew Langdon QC, 2017 Chairman of the Bar Council).

I am not a Luddite and do believe we need to digitise backroom court processes, but I’m really concerned that we are embarking on this reform programme too quickly – even Professor Richard Susskind, the “father” of these reforms, agrees that they need more haste, less speed. And I fear we are spending much more than we need under (unnecessary) pressure for speed.

NB Just found in a parliamentary answer yet more contracts for HMCTS IT services.  These are in addition to the change management contracts and presumably for digital court reform. Five recent contracts add up to £37.855 million.  Exactly what they are for is a bit obscure.