HMCTS digital courts plan not affected by CEO departure
No review of transformation aims planned as a result of Natalie Ceeney's decision to step down; legal stakeholders warn drive for innovation must not limit access to justice
Ongoing efforts by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to reform the criminal justice system and its supporting infrastructure via a digital strategy will not be affected by the decision of its chief executive Natalie Ceeney to step down from her role later this month, the organisation has said.
HMCTS development director and Board member Kevin Sadler will take up the chief executive role on an interim basis and is expected to work with Ceeney over the course of this month to ensure a smooth transition. A search for a permanent successor is expected to get underway "shortly".
As part of a five-year £700m modernisation programme unveiled by the government last November, HMCTS is looking to introduce new ways of working to curb the use of paper processes within the courts system and improve overall efficiency in its operations.
Considering these efforts to introduce new online service functions and a shared digital platform with the Crown Prosecution Service later this year, the organisation said it was not expecting to review the transformation strategy as a result of the departure.
Announcing her decision to step down, Ceeney said she joined the organisation with a clear remit to lead transformation of the justice system to operate in a digital age.
"After years of underinvestment, we've now secured over £1bn of investment, and have well and truly started to deliver. Seeing the first stages of delivery over the last year, through the digitalisation of the criminal courts infrastructure, has, I hope, given everyone confidence that this transformation is real and deliverable," she said.
"There is a strong team in place to lead the work, and it now feels like an appropriate time to hand the baton on to a successor to see through the transformation over the next four to five years."
Ceeney praised all her colleagues for their work in transforming the justice system, "despite archaic IT and crumbling buildings", adding she was grateful for the support of senior judiciary and the HMCTS Board, ministers and senior departmental colleagues.
"I am exceedingly grateful for all of the long hours and hard work HM Courts and Tribunals staff at all levels have put in both to keep the Courts and Tribunals running well, and to develop our service for the future," she said.
HMCTS said last month that its criminal justice digitalisation programme was "well advanced" as it prepares to move to the next stage of plans to implement new tools and a shared platform for stakeholders.
The current work to try and end the Courts and Tribunals Service's reliance on paper processes as part of its modernisation programme has been welcomed by Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society professional body.
"However, modernisation is not without challenges, the most pertinent of which is ensuring that any transition does not infringe on access to justice," he said.
"It is possible that a move towards digital court systems would exclude some people, especially those that have learning difficulties, those on low income, those that do not have English as a first language, or those that are not IT literate. We have to make sure no one falls through the gap."
With a new digital system potentially on the horizon, Smithers said that alongside the potential challenges, there were notable opportunities to improve the clarity, accessibility and transparency of court documents and procedures.
"If attention to detail is paid, and the many considerations are thought through, a greater reliance on technology can only be a good thing," he added.
Claimed to be the biggest investment of the courts and tribunals system in a generation, Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) chief executive Tony Meggs in January included digital court reforms amongst the three government programmes he was most concerned about.
Meggs at the time cited the overall complexity of the work required to introduce digital court processes as his reason for concern over completion of the project. Recent national auditor reports have meanwhile called for an improved collaborative focus by key stakeholders to address disparate technology use with the criminal justice system.