Public Accounts Committee

Press Notice No. 61 of Session 2005-06 dated 19 October 2006

61st PAC Report 2005-06

Crown Prosecution Service: Effective use of magistrates' courts hearings

Chairman: Edward Leigh MP


Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The Crown Prosecution Service and the police are jointly responsible for an alarming number of delayed and ineffective trials in magistrates' courts. This is not only a waste of taxpayers' money - some £55 million a year - but also an affront to society's expectation and demand 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 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 Crown Prosecution Service needs to sharpen up its performance and start to emulate the most successful private law firms."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 61st Report of this Session, which examined the extent to which the Crown Prosecution Service makes best use of its resources, the measures needed to modernise and reform its working practices and overcome cultural barriers, and how the Crown Prosecution Service could work more effectively with Her Majesty's Court Service, the police and other parties to reduce the number of ineffective trials and hearings.

Over 90% of the Crown Prosecution Service's cases are conducted in magistrates' courts. In 2004-05, there were 190,466 magistrates' courts trials and over 2.8 million pre-trial hearings but just under two thirds of trials (117,922) and over a quarter of pre-trial hearings (784,000) did not go ahead as planned. Delays in these proceedings cost the taxpayer over £173 million, of which £24 million was attributable directly to the Crown Prosecution Service, a further £24 million to the police and £7 million to them jointly.

In just over half of the cases where the trial did not go ahead, the defence was responsible, most frequently because the defendant pleaded guilty on the trial date. Of the remainder, 38% (45,366) did not proceed because the prosecution case was not ready or the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges on the day of the trial. In addition, between 150,000 and 180,000 ineffective pre-trial hearings were due to prosecution failings. In part, delays are 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. Nevertheless, the Crown Prosecution Service could do more to progress cases promptly and efficiently.

Most delays caused by the Crown Prosecution Service are avoidable: files are mislaid or not updated due to poor case tracking; insufficient time is allowed for the preparation of 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, necessitating a last minute change of prosecutor, or the police may not provide essential evidence in time.

The Crown Prosecution Service is, effectively, the largest law firm in the country and needs to learn from the most successful private practices if it is to discharge its responsibilities in bringing the guilty to justice swiftly.