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Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, today reported to Parliament on joint administration of criminal justice by the main Departments concerned – the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office, and the Lord Chancellor’s Department. Departments have taken significant steps to improve collaboration between agencies and to focus on joint outcomes and streamline procedures. But more remains to be done to promote co-operation and to make the right information available for efficient management of the system.

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It costs about £9 billion each year to process some two million defendants through the criminal courts. Efficient and effective progression of cases depends on the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and other agencies working closely with each other as well as with victims, defendants, witnesses and others. The report contains 63 recommendations designed to deepen collaboration and improve performance.

The report’s key findings, conclusions and recommendations are summarised below.

  • The limited information currently collected suggests there are considerable variations in the time taken locally to progress cases through the magistrates’ courts. For the more serious cases it takes between 60 and 100 days on average to complete a case depending on the local area in which the case is heard.
  • The number and length of adjournments are key factors in the time taken to complete a case, but there is no single national source of data on the reasons for adjournments.
  • National Audit Office survey data suggest that nearly three quarters of a million magistrates’ court hearings each year have to be adjourned because of errors or omissions on the part of one or more of the participants, including defence. They may result in wasted expenditure of over £40 million each year and an average additional delay of more than two weeks in the progress of each case. Ineffective trials in the Crown Court may result in waste of an estimated £15 million each year.
  • In half of the ineffective identified in our survey of the magistrates’ courts the problems resulted from failures within, or in liaison between, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts or other public bodies. The Departments have made progress towards improving collaboration and aligning the administrative boundaries of local agencies. The report recommends further improvements in local liaison arrangements, including joint accountability for meeting performance standards. The report also notes that sanctions available to magistrates and judges to tackle unsatisfactory performance by local criminal justice agencies in preparing for hearings are ineffective and recommends they be reviewed.
  • A quarter of ineffective hearings in the magistrates’ courts are caused by defendants on bail not turning up at court. The report recommends that Departments examine ways in which penalties for breach of bail can be made more effective and monitor recent reforms to ensure they achieve their aim of reducing the number of bail breaches.
  • A further quarter of ineffective hearings in the magistrates’ courts are caused by errors or omissions on the part of defendants or their legal representatives. The report recommends that standards for defence preparedness for hearings should be incorporated into the new contracts for defence solicitors with the Criminal Defence Service and performance closely monitored.
  • Cracked trials in the Crown Court may cost almost £29 million each year. While a cracked trial costs less than a fully contested hearing, it is more effective if a case can be disposed of at an earlier stage. There is wide variation in performance between individual courts and the report recommends wider promulgation of good practice from the better performing courts.
  • Each agency’s information systems have not been designed to communicate with each other and electronic exchange of information to progress cases is therefore limited. The Departments have launched a joint information systems initiative to develop compatibility between systems. Implementation is expected to take up to six years.
  • Much of the performance information already collected focuses on individual agencies, rather than the joint performance of participants or overall performance of the system. There is scope for further joint performance management.
  • The Departments have set performance measures for the criminal justice system as a whole but there are problems with the quality, completeness, consistency, relevance and transparency of the basic data agencies currently collect. There needs to be agreement at local and national level about what information should be collected and how it should be used to determine joint action to improve performance.

"Everyone involved in criminal justice agrees that the system cannot function effectively unless all the parties involved work closely together. For this to happen there must be the right structures in place to facilitate co-operation and the right information to enable the system to be managed. Millions of pounds could be saved by reducing the number of ineffective hearings and implementing our recommendations will go a long way to achieving this."

Sir John Bourn


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