The sudden and dramatic collapse of Carillion has thrown into stark relief the whole system of outsourcing public contracts to a few large companies. Even before Carillion’s collapse, though, many experts were nervous that planning for crucial reform of the court system appears to be largely in the hands of these same giant contractors.
Digitising the Courts
The court system in England and Wales has never been so overworked, resulting in a huge backlog of cases. Recent government responses have included substantial increases in court fees, but a major long-term solution is the proposal to move many cases online.
On the face of it, there’s a lot to be said for this strategy. Besides freeing up the physical courts and massive savings in the cost of hearing cases, it’s argued that digitisation will improve access to justice.
This thinking has been questioned, though. Malcolm Richardson, stepping down from his role as Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, has warned that defendants could be convicted “without any judicial involvement at all. In our view, this would be a step too far,” adding “How can we build society’s confidence in a justice system they can’t see?”
Consultations and Accountability
This would be all very well if there were confidence the proposals would be fully and transparently trialled and evaluated. Instead of public and parliamentary debate, however, the government seem to be relying entirely on the usual outsourcing procedure — in this case, to PwC, Accenture and EY (formerly Ernst & Young).
Many legal experts have serious concerns about this. Penelope Gibbs, Director of Transform Justice, has pointed out that “HMCTS [Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service] are mostly communicating what they are doing, not asking experts and others whether the reform plan is a good idea.” She adds, “Because there is no parliamentary process, there is little media scrutiny and few outside the world of criminal law know what is going on.”
HMCTS have claimed that their modernisation programme is the most “ambitious programme of its kind anywhere in the world, which will see more than £1bn invested over a six-year period.”
It may well be that PwC, Accenture and EY will fully justify the government’s faith in them, but the Carillion affair inevitably raises questions over paying huge sums of public money to a few large firms. At a minimum, there needs to be far more transparency and parliamentary scrutiny than there is at the moment.
If you’re concerned about how the digitisation of the court might affect the recovery of debts owed to you, feel free to contact me for a chat.