Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 22 of Session 2004-05, dated 16 June 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts in the previous Parliament, said today:

"Public confidence in the criminal justice system is weakened if defendants skip their court hearings, leading to failed trials. But each year some 15% of defendants don't turn up for their court appearances. Many clearly believe that they can get away with snubbing the legal process and, disgracefully, there is some justification for that belief. Many of these defendants are not promptly brought back to court and some are never brought back.

"The whole bail process needs to be managed much more effectively. It is currently unclear, for each stage of the process, which criminal justice agency is in charge. This 'pass the parcel' attitude is a recipe for confusion. Courts are often taking decisions on whether to grant bail or remand in custody without reliable information on the defendants. Warrants for the arrest of no-show defendants can take too long to get to local police stations and local police can be too slow to make the arrests. There is scope for big improvement in each of these areas.

"The flow of information between the criminal justice agencies must be greatly improved. And all defendants must be left in no doubt that failing to turn up in court will have swift and uncomfortable consequences."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 22nd Report of the 2004-05 Session, which examined the management of attendance at court by defendants.

Defendants have primary responsibility for attending court on the dates and times set for them. In 2002, for example, 85% of defendants attended hearings in England and Wales. Those defendants who do not turn up, however, cause distress and inconvenience to victims and witnesses, and waste the time and resources of the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and lawyers. Defendants' non-attendance was the second largest cause of ineffective trials in England and Wales in the year ended June 2004, delaying one in twenty trials in magistrates' courts and one in thirty-two trials in the Crown Courts.

No single agency is responsible for ensuring that a defendant attends court. In April 2003, to improve joint working between the criminal justice agencies on a range of issues, the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Crown Prosecution Service established 42 local criminal justice boards, comprising the local heads of the various criminal justice agencies. The Office for Criminal Justice Reform, a non-executive body, has also been established by these Departments to help improve joint working between the criminal justice agencies. It reports to the National Criminal Justice Board comprising the heads of the various criminal justice agencies.

Effective management of the bail process requires reliable information to be available when bail is decided by the courts, and suitable arrangements to monitor and enforce any conditions. In practice, none of the main types of bail conditions used by the courts can guarantee attendance, and there is significant scope to improve the arrangements for monitoring bail conditions and reporting breaches.

The courts usually base their bail decisions on representations from the Crown Prosecution Service and the defence lawyer. The Crown Prosecution Service is advised by the police and may also receive a bail information report, which seeks to verify information on the defendant, from the Probation Service. Due to other priorities, the number of reports produced by the Probation Service for first hearings fell from 25,000 in 1996 to just below 10,000 in 2002. In the absence of this information, the court may require the defendant to be held in custody on remand. Once this happens, responsibility for preparing the bail information report passes to the Prison Service. But in 2002-03, the Prison Service produced bail information reports for only 22% of eligible remand prisoners. In some cases the defendant may have refused the offer of a report, but in other cases preparation of a report could not always be arranged by the Prison Service.

Some defendants are never brought back to justice. The process to issue and execute warrants for failure to attend is often slow, and relies on paper being passed between the courts and the police. Although local boards are improving the execution of bail warrants, this has not always been a priority for the police. Of the 118,000 bail warrants issued in 2002, the latest year for which data was available, only 45% were executed by the police within three months. There has been no strong incentive for police forces to give appropriate priority to arresting defendants who are being prosecuted in another area. The Association of Chief Police Officers has established a working group to develop a national protocol to improve the execution of warrants.

A lack of preparedness on the part of either the defence or prosecution leading to frequent adjournments can create a perception that attendance is not important. Evidence from pilot projects funded by the Departments suggests that tighter management of the overall trial process can have a positive impact on reducing defendant failure-to-attend rates. In Essex, for example, the local board has reduced the number of ineffective trials caused by defendants not attending by nearly half from 8.2% in 2002-03 to 4.4% in 2003-04.

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