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Defendants on bail who do not turn up for their court hearings cause distress and inconvenience to victims and witnesses, delay justice and undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. Tackling the problem of defendants who fail to attend court will require concerted action by the criminal justice agencies, according to the National Audit Office.

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Action is being taken to return defendants to court more promptly following a failure to attend. The criminal justice agencies now need to focus more attention on making sure that defendants attend hearings in the first place. Some positive work towards this has begun and this is being rolled out across all of England and Wales by December 2005 as part of the ‘Criminal Case Management Framework’.

Today’s report to Parliament by head of the NAO Sir John Bourn points out that, in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, 15 per cent of defendants on bail missed at least one hearing. In the same year, less than half of the defendants on bail who missed their hearings were brought back to court within three months.

A number of criminal justice agencies, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Probation Service, cooperate to manage defendants on conditional bail and to return to court those who fail to attend hearings. In April 2003, the National Criminal Justice Board and 42 local boards were established to provide a consistent service across the criminal justice system.

Since the creation of the new local boards, local criminal justice agencies have paid more attention to arresting and bringing back to court those who have failed to appear. But some defendants are never brought back to court. The total number is unknown but the Office for Criminal Justice Reform reported that, from April 2005, every criminal justice area will have data on the number of warrants issued and executed each month. Criminal Justice areas have now agreed priorities and set targets for improving the time within which defendants are brought back to court.

There are still problems however, with bringing back to court defendants who live outside the criminal justice area in which they are being prosecuted. At present, there is no mechanism and no strong incentive for police forces to give priority to those defendants who are being prosecuted in another area. The Association of Chief Police Officers has established a working group to develop a national protocol on this and other issues, which is being drawn up in collaboration with key criminal justice partners.

Making sure that defendants attend hearings in the first place will require a number of improvements to be made. In many areas, there remain gaps in the information available to the courts when taking bail decisions; no provision for magistrates and judges to be made aware of the extent to which the police monitor compliance with bail conditions; and delays in taking action when defendants breach bail conditions. In addition, there is some evidence of poor communication with defendants regarding the date and time of the next hearing: the form given to defendants with the date of the next hearing is not always easy to understand and is on occasion illegible.

The Probation Service and Prison Service aim to provide reports verifying defendants’ domestic circumstances and the availability of accommodation for the first and second hearings respectively, but pressure on resources and other priorities mean that these reports are frequently unavailable. As a result Magistrates’ courts sometimes lack sufficient information on defendants’ domestic circumstances to decide whether or not to grant bail; they therefore remand the defendants in custody until information is available.

There is a need to investigate the options available to the courts for those defendants awaiting trial who pose a low threat to the public but, who have a high risk of failing to attend. Remanding such defendants in custody is often the only option available to courts. The number of beds in probation hostels for those on bail has dropped by over 50 per cent in five years (from just under 1,400 to 638), with many of the places now being used to help rehabilitate ex-prisoners into the community.

Initial results from Effective Trial Management Programme test areas suggest that improving management of the trial process can improve attendance rates.

"If justice is to be seen to be done and the public is to have increased confidence in the criminal justice system, the criminal justice agencies must take swift action when defendants do not attend hearings and trials.

"The current initiatives to bring defendants who miss hearings back to court promptly and to improve the management of the trial process are welcome but there is still much ground to be made up. Amongst other measures, the courts need for example better information on whether defendants have firm and permanent addresses where they can, if necessary be tracked down."

Sir John Bourn


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