Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"The Courts Service has got a lot better overall at starting trials at the Crown Court on time but it will miss its target for starting on time those cases which have been committed for trial. Performance varies widely across England and Wales: in the six poorest performing areas, such trials began within 16 weeks in only just over a half of cases.
"Long delays to the start of the most serious criminal cases do not serve the cause of justice. Against the background of an expected increase in Crown Court workload until 2011 and a cut in its budget, better use must be made of the Crown Court’s estate, staff and IT.
"The Courts Service could do a lot more. It should consider setting local targets for those locations with the longer waiting times. Court staff should be trained and supported to be able to deal flexibly with whatever work is to be undertaken at individual courts. The Courts Service should also differentiate between cases to identify those which need more preparation time.
"Court staff need efficient user-friendly IT if they are to process cases efficiently and help judges make the best use of court rooms. But the Crown Court’s 20 year-old case management system has seen better days. If a case is moved from one court to another, then all the information has to be keyed into the system again. Improvements to the system’s functionality are sorely needed."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 35th report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from HM Courts Service and the Ministry of Justice, examined improving the performance of the Crown Court, getting the right resources for the Crown Court and modernising Crown Court technology.
In 2007, the Crown Court received from magistrates’ courts 87,000 cases for trial, 40,000 cases for sentencing and 13,000 appeals by defendants. HM Courts Service, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, administers the Crown Court, providing its estate, staff and IT. In 2007–08, the Service spent around £380 million to operate the Crown Court, including paying for the judges who hear all Crown Court cases. Under the direction of judges, the Service’s staff allocate dates when cases are to be heard in court (known as listing) and manage the progress of cases to trial. In 2008, a new Board was established to provide leadership and broad direction for the Service. The Board includes three judicial members.
HM Courts Service is likely to achieve its overall target for timely commencement of Crown Court cases in 2008–09, which will be the first time since it was established in April 2005. The Service will not, however, meet its target for commencing cases committed for trial which arise when a defendant opts to have a case heard in the Crown Court, or magistrates decide that this should happen.
Performance varies widely across the Service’s 24 areas. In 2007–08, the six best performing areas on average commenced 87 per cent of cases committed for Crown Court trial within 16 weeks; the six poorest performing areas began 56 per cent of cases. The Service is facing a tight budgetary position and Crown Court workload is forecast to increase until 2011. If it is to reduce further the time taken to commence cases and provide a good service in all areas, it must make better use of the Crown Court’s estate, staff and IT.
Crown Court locations in London and parts of the South East face capacity constraints which increase waiting times and have led to HM Courts Service transferring cases between courts. This can inconvenience victims, witnesses and other parties. The Service is spending £120 million to increase the number of Crown Court rooms by 30 (6 per cent) by 2012. Despite improvements over the last six years, fewer than half of trials proceed on the day scheduled and the Service needs to do more to improve performance.
The Crown Court would benefit from using more modern and efficient information technology. For instance, the case management system CREST is reliable but is over 20 years old and has limited functionality which leads to inefficient working practices.