£173 million was spent last year on trials and hearings in magistrates’ courts that did not go ahead as planned. Of this, nearly £24 million was due to the Crown Prosecution Service. The National Audit Office calculate that 28 per cent (784,000 annually) of all pre-trial hearings in magistrates’ courts do not proceed on the scheduled day, and are adjourned to a later date. The defence is responsible for more than half, while the CPS and the Police are responsible for just over a fifth. The NAO estimate that just under 71,000 ineffective pre-trial hearings are directly attributable to the CPS, together with about one in ten of all trials (19,500).
Individual prosecutors deal with a large volume of cases, often at very short notice. This makes it difficult for them to prepare cases in time, so trials and hearings do not go ahead as scheduled. The NAO found, however, that problems with the Crown Prosecution Service’s planning and preparation for magistrates’ court hearings are a contributory factor. There is insufficient oversight of cases; urgent cases may not be adequately prioritised; evidence is sometimes incomplete; and files are mislaid.
The police and the courts also cause problems resulting in prosecution delays. Often the police do not provide the evidence in time for the hearing; and Her Majesty’s Courts Service staff move cases around at the last minute, sometimes giving prosecutors only a few minutes’ notice.
The CPS is seeking to improve its performance through initiatives such as ‘No Witness, No Justice’, which aims to support prosecution witnesses through the courts process, and the Charging Initiative which passes responsibility for determining the correct charge from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. It also plays a key part in Local Criminal Justice Boards to promote joint working with other criminal justice agencies such as the Police and Her Majesty’s Courts Service. We found good examples of local action by CPS offices to improve performance at magistrates’ court hearings, but generally the CPS needs to re-organise and modernise its management of magistrates’ court casework.
The NAO report makes a number of recommendations to improve joint working with other criminal justice areas; maintain proper oversight of cases; make more prosecutor time available for review and preparation; prioritise some cases to ensure that they are ready when they come to court; and remove duplication and release resources by updating case records electronically at court.