Staff cuts at the Crown Prosecution Service have led to a marked decline in its performance, with 'inadequate' case progression and preparation, an annual health check has revealed.
The report by HM CPS Inspectorate said: 'The background of continuing resource reductions is now having an impact on the ability of the service to deliver effectively across the whole range of its activity.'
In practical terms, it said, this has resulted in prosecutors and paralegal officers carrying higher individual caseloads. 'Increasingly we now find stakeholders perceiving inadequate case progression and preparation as attributable to these increased workloads.'
The report covers the period 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014. During the year CPS staff numbers dropped by 9% and since 2011/12 the workforce has fallen by 15.5%. Since 2011-12, the CPS has lost more than 450 prosecutors and nearly 500 administrators.
While the number of staff fell, the caseload in the magistrates' court rose by 1%. The total number of completed cases fell by over 67,000 and contested cases increased by over 400, to 47,544 compared with 47,082 in 2012/13.
The proportion of successful outcomes dropped from 86.2% to 85.7% and the number of cases dropped by the prosecution rose to 9.7% from 9.6%.
In the Crown court the overall number of cases fell by 2.6% and contested cases by 8.2%. The proportion of successful outcomes increased to 81% compared with 80.7% the previous year and the percentage of cases dropped by the prosecution fell from 11.5% to 11.4%.
Inspectors examined 776 cases and found the proportion of police-charged cases that complied with the Code for Crown Prosecutors had fallen 'substantially', dropping to 83.1% from 87.4% last year.
At the charging stage inspectors were concerned to note a number of cases that demonstrated a lack of understanding of key legal elements, while later in the process increasing caseloads adversely affected the timeliness of decision-making.
Areas where prosecutors did not comply with the Code for Crown Prosecutors included failures to weigh up correctly the strength of identification or forensic evidence, and misunderstanding joint-enterprise concepts.
Aspects of the handling of unused material continued to be problematic, while the performance in dealing with disclosure fell. Initial disclosure was dealt with correctly in 50.9% of cases and continuing disclosure in 57.2% of cases, down from 77.1% for both aspects the previous year.
Overall compliance with the disclosure requirements was timely in 52.9% of cases, but in only 39.5% of those dealt with in the magistrates' courts.
Compliance with custody time limit requirements fell, with full compliance in 68.8% compared with 84.1% last year.
Instructions to the advocates were found to be unsatisfactory in 22.5% of relevant cases, with many containing no analysis of the evidential issues or proposed trial strategy.
?HM chief inspector, Michael Fuller, said: 'Overall, the CPS handles its most serious and complex casework well, but the position is less satisfactory in what is referred to as "volume crime" cases.'??
He acknowledged the continuing background of reducing budgets and resources, but said further efficiencies can be made.
In a statement, the director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders welcomed the acknowledgment that performance in serious and complex cases has improved.
She said the report was largely based on cases completed more than a year ago and more recent data shows 'improvements across the board'.
Saunders said: 'While the challenges mentioned in this report are ones we are addressing they should be seen in the context of an improving prosecution service across the country.'