In the Media

Police and prosecutors waste ?55m a year on bungled cases

PUBLISHED October 19, 2006

POLICE officers and prosecutors are accused of an ?alarming? catalogue of bungling and inefficiency leading to delays in magistrates? court cases that cost taxpayers ?173 million a year. 
Hundreds of cases collapse each day because of poor administration and incompetence, MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee will say today.

Blame for nearly a third of the money wasted in delayed trials can be laid on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, which have jointly incurred ?55 million in wasted costs, it has found.

The report highlights the huge number of trials or hearings that fail, often needlessly. ?Such delays undermine the effective administration of justice, causing suffering to the innocent and delaying or failing to bring justice to the guilty,? it says.

Last year almost two in three ? or nearly 118,000 ? magistrates? court trials and more than one in four ? 784,000 ? pre-trial hearings did not go ahead because the prosecution case was not ready or the charges were dropped on the day of the case, the report found.

In just over half the cases the defence was responsible, usually because the defendant pleaded guilty on the trial date. This accounted for a further ?96 million wasted.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the all-party committee, said: ?The Crown Prosecution Service and the police are jointly responsible for the alarming number of delayed and ineffective trials in magistrates? courts. This is not only a waste of taxpayers? money ? ?55 million a year ? but also an affront to society?s expectation that the guilty be swiftly brought to justice.

?The CPS needs to cast a sharp eye on its own organisational structure and also improve its system for preparing for magistrates? court cases by adopting current best practice. It must also tackle the cultural resistance within the organisation to 21st-century working practices.?

The committee?s report examined the extent to which the CPS made best use of its resources, measures needed to modernise and reform its working practices and how it could work more effectively with the courts, the police and other parties to reduce the number of ineffective trials and hearings.

More than 90 per cent of the CPS?s cases are conducted in magistrates? courts. In 2004-05 there were 190,466 magistrates? court trials and more than 2.8 million pre-trial hearings but just under two thirds of trials (117,922) and more than a quarter of pre-trial hearings (784,000) did not go ahead.

Delays in these proceedings cost the taxpayer more than ?173 million ? ?24 million attributable directly to the CPS, ?24 million to the police and a further ?7 million to them jointly. In just over half the cases where the trial did not go ahead, the defence was responsible, most frequently because the defendant pleaded guilty on the day (a ?cracked? trial).

Of the rest, 38 per cent (45,366) did not proceed because the prosecution case was not ready or the CPS dropped the charges on the day of the trial. Between 150,000 and 180,000 ineffective pretrial hearings resulted from prosecution failings.

In part the report found that delays were a product of the increasing complexity and more stringent evidential requirements, which have eroded the distinction between magistrates? court and Crown Court case preparation, undermining the effectiveness of magistrates? courts as a system of summary justice. But the CPS could do more to make cases progress promptly and efficiently, the report says.

Most delays caused by the CPS are avoidable ? files are mislaid or not updated owing to poor case tracking; insufficient time is allowed to prepare cases; and inadequate prioritisation of cases means that urgent action is not completed before the next hearing. Some delays result from the actions of other criminal justice agencies. For example, court staff may move cases between courtrooms, which may mean a last-minute change of prosecutor, or the police may not provide essential evidence in time.

The report says that the CPS is, effectively, the country?s largest law firm and needs to learn from the most successful private practices if it is to bring the guilty to justice swiftly.

Mr Leigh said: ?The management of cases must be radically improved, with fewer barriers between lawyers and administrative staff. There must be much better awareness of which cases are high-risk so that evidence can be obtained in good time.

?And the CPS must take advantage of readily available technology so that, for instance, lawyers can electronically record case information in court and automatically transfer it to the service?s case-management system and offices can review DVD-based evidence.

?The CPS needs to sharpen up its performance and start to emulate the most successful private law firms.?