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HM Courts Service has taken practical steps to improve the use of the Crown Court’s existing resources but a number of risks to value for money remain, the National Audit Office has today reported.

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The Crown Court operates from around 500 court rooms at almost 100 locations around England and Wales. In 2007 it heard 135,000 criminal cases, including the most serious cases, up 5 per cent from 2005. Some Crown Court locations in London and parts of the South East are running at, or close to, full capacity, which can increase waiting times affecting victims, witnesses and other parties in a court case.

At some locations HM Courts Service has used magistrates’ court rooms to reduce the shortage of Crown Court rooms. It has also transferred blocks of cases between different locations. Such transfers can cut waiting times but HM Courts Service needs to ensure that any disruption for those attending court is minimised.

HM Courts Service is planning to spend £120 million to increase the number of Crown Court rooms by 30 (6 per cent) over the next three years. HM Courts Service should improve its assessment of future Crown Court workload and finalise a standard way of assessing the court rooms needed to meet that workload.

HM Courts Service has not had a model for determining staffing levels at Crown Court locations since 2004-05. There have also been weaknesses in learning and development programmes available to Crown Court staff. For 2009-10, onwards HM Courts Service has established a new staffing model. It is also working with the Ministry of Justice to improve learning and development programmes.

Improvements are needed to the two main Crown Court IT systems. The case management system – CREST – is 20 years old and is no longer supported by the manufacturer, bringing operational risks. The XHIBIT system provides real time information on the progress of trials and records results, but it needs greater flexibility to respond to changes in legislation. XHIBIT is not currently able to accommodate new or revised forms when they are introduced.

"HM Courts Service faces a tight budgetary position and needs to get the most from its estate, staff and IT resources if Crown Court cases are to start promptly. The Service needs to improve its allocation and development of staff, so that it has enough well-trained people in each of its court locations, and tackle weaknesses in IT systems which currently bring operational risks and impair efficiency."

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office


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