Inefficient courts ?cost millions?

PUBLISHED February 17, 2006

Reform: Crown Prosecution Service ?making efforts? to modernise, but still to blame for one in ten ineffective trials

Ineffective magistrates? courts trials and hearings cost the criminal justice system ?173 million last year, of which nearly ?24 million was caused by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), a National Audit Office (NAO) report revealed this week.

In 2004/05, of 190,466 magistrates? court trials, 62% did not go ahead on the day ? the definition of ineffective. In addition, 28% of 2.8 million other pre- and post-trial hearings were ineffective.

The NAO study into the CPS?s effective use of magistrates? court hearings calculated that slightly fewer than 71,000 ineffective pre-trial hearings and one in ten ineffective trials were directly attributable to the CPS.

The defence was responsible for more than half of all ineffective trials, most frequently where the defendant pleaded guilty. Police and court staff also contributed to delays.

Failure of witnesses to attend court and lack of evidence were the main reasons for the prosecution requesting an adjournment or dropping charges on the day of trial.

The report acknowledged that prosecutors dealt with a large volume of cases, often at short notice, but found that problems with the CPS?s planning and preparation contributed to ineffective hearings.

In particular, the NAO cited insufficient oversight and lack of continuity in presenting cases, lack of preparation time, poor prioritisation of urgent cases, and inadequate case-tracking that led to mislaid files.

NAO head Sir John Bourn said: ?The CPS is making efforts to improve its performance in magistrates? courts, but needs to do more to modernise the way in which it prepares and brings cases to court.?

He recommended the service improve joint working with other agencies, maintain proper oversight of cases, make more prosecutor time available for review and preparation, develop procedures for urgent cases and make greater use of IT to remove duplication of work.

In a written statement, the CPS acknowledged there were too many ineffective hearings and said it would work to reduce them by introducing better arrangements for handling cases and continuing to work with other criminal justice agencies.

Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: ?There are many reasons why a defendant would plead guilty on the day of trial; it could be due to the Crown having reviewed the charges or disclosing evidence late.? He added that if the courts had a more efficient method of listing cases involving the same solicitor, delay would be avoided.