New survey of magistrates highlights serious concerns about self-representation in court.
Criminal trials are delayed after cuts to prosecution staff (Image: Shutterstock- Courts)
A crown court judge has slammed the ‘inexcusable’ negligence of the Crown Prosecution Service following a series of failures in serious court cases at Bristol Crown Court.
Late last month the Recorder of Bristol spent an entire afternoon working through cases where the CPS had failed to produce basic papers before a plea hearing. Eight cases were considered, cases that included charges as serious as wounding with intent, false imprisonment of a child, and rape. In each instance the CPS had failed to disclose paperwork in time for Plea and Case Management Hearings, meaning another hearing was needed and the trial was delayed. In some instances basic paperwork was produced hours before a hearing, in others it did not materialise at all.
Judge Ford explained that he had taken the dramatic step of allocating an entire courtroom to deal with several cases in one afternoon saying: ‘I was so concerned about what appeared, to me, to be wholesale failings in case management on the part of the CPS’.
The judge’s words echoed those of other judges and magistrates, who are increasingly voicing concerns about the work of the CPS, calling the situation: ‘an awful mess’, ‘unacceptable’, and another noting failures add up to a ‘real risk of miscarriage of justice’.
The complaints come as the CPS faces staff and budget cuts. Work by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the CPS legal teams have been cut by 31% since 2010. Higher court advocate numbers were slashed by 44%, and the number of barristers reduced by 27% since 2010.
Related article: New figures reveal the CPS has lost more than 20% of its legal teams
The staff cuts come after a Comprehensive Spending Review undertaken in 2010, set out plans for a budget reduction of 27% in real terms by 2014/2015.
Analysis of Ministry of Justice figures also shows that the proportion of trials declared ineffective because of errors by CPS prosecutors, is on the rise.
In the first nine months of 2013, 206 Crown Court trials were declared ineffective because prosecutors were not ready- having failed to serve vital paperwork to the defence. That equated to 6% of all ineffective trials.
In 2012, 5% of trials failed because the CPS failed to disclose evidence on time.
Similar issues arose in the magistrates courts. The number of ineffective trials due to the prosecution failing to disclose unused evidence rose by more than a third: from 583 in the first three quarters of 2012, to 797 trials in the same period of last year.
Now the Bureau has tracked several instances where judges have criticised the CPS for failing in their duties, in many instances due to workload pressures.
Earlier this month judge Ford handed down his ruling on the CPS’s performance in Bristol Crown Court, ordering them to pay £870 in wasted costs to the defence teams involved. Judge Ford concluded that the CPS had been ‘negligent’ in their work, saying: ‘The failings, in relation to a simple but fundamental task (the service of papers) were inexcusable’.
The failures had all happened over a matter of weeks in December and January. Judge Ford explained that the ‘alarming number of cases’ lead him to write to the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the region, adding that ‘this should be seen in the context of a continuing battle to gain increased compliance with the CPS’.
Explaining the CPS’s failure, barrister Richard Posner admitted their actions had amounted to negligence and noted that the CPS, ‘like all sectors of the justice system has been dealing with the understandable challenge of a reduction in resources.’ He said his colleagues felt a ‘sense of regret’ at the way case management had been handled, noting that for the presiding judge in each case ‘it must have been like banging one’s head against the wall’.
The central CPS team explained that the problems had been caused by a temporary backlog of cases and noted that Judge Ford has acknowledged that performance has improved since.
‘Tide of such a vast workload’
Complaints about the CPS’s performance have also come from the magistrates courts.
In March a trial was delayed in Crawley Magistrates court after the CPS failed to disclose vital evidence to the court on time and failed to comply with court directions made at several hearings.
District Judge Crabtree, who was dealing with the case management hearings at the court that day, voiced his concerns, telling the CPS: ‘No competent prosecutor mindful of his obligations etc. would have failed to meet the requirements of today’s hearing,’ and ‘I have real concerns as to the progress of this case if it is to be fairly and justly completed in time for trial on the date set. The Prosecution have patently failed to comply with the disclosure requirements under the Criminal Procedure Rule and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act.’
The judge then charged the CPS for wasted costs of £525 for the first case management hearing, telling the court: ‘This case was not well-handled from the CPS point of view from a relatively early stage. [This is ] important for two reasons, first to ensure court time not wasted, and secondly to avoid real risk of miscarriage of justice. Both cause me real concern.’
After the trial faltered the court wrote to the regional CPS team to ask for an explanation. The Bureau obtained a leaked copy of the email, which reveals CPS staff in Sussex struggling under their workload.
A CPS representative explains to the court: ‘The simple explanation is that our lawyers are currently struggling to review the 170+ trials listed across Sussex between 3/1/14 & 10/1/14. We have already had to seek assistance from our lawyer colleagues in Kent in attempting to address these difficulties, to the detriment of their own cases.’
The email goes on: ‘Whilst we appreciate the assistance of HMCTS in vacating some trials (and I would imagine that more cases stand to be vacated), there are still many trials listed, as indicated above. Unfortunately, with so many trials remaining listed, we have little chance of making any real progress against the tide of such a vast workload.’
The CPS noted that a change in the way trials were listed in Sussex court had created problems in the system. The increased workload meant that some cases were not prepared on time, including this case. The CPS noted it regrets that directions to serve evidence were not compiled within this case. It now has a dedicated team working on these cases.
‘It is very frustrating and worrying’
In January, in Worcester Magistrates Court, District judge Nigel Cadbury said the CPS was in an “awful mess” after defence solicitors revealed they had been waiting six months for the disclosure of basic information in an assault case.
The trial was the case of four people charged with actual bodily harm. However, the day before the trial defence solicitors had still not received basic information about including the interview of the alleged victim.
“It’s an awful mess,” judge Cadbury told the court, “I don’t think it’s your fault or the fault of lawyers who have to make one excuse after another for the CPS. But the system isn’t geared up to deal with anything but the simplest of trials in the magistrates court. It is very frustrating and worrying. All of this means wasted costs.”
The CPS explained there had been a problem with IT systems which was out of the CPS’s control, and that three out of the four solicitor firms involved had received papers, but one had not.
In February, in Swindon Crown Court, judge Douglas Field spoke out against the CPS as a fourteen year old boy was held in remand for 3 months, partly due to a failure by the CPS to disclose key documents.
The judge spoke out after finding that the CPS had failed to provide basic paperwork before the child’s plea hearing. The trial, for two counts of burglary, started in November last year but was adjourned until January 2nd. However, at that point the CPS failed to produce the correct paperwork.
The judge allowed them three more weeks to prepare, but the papers were not disclosed until the day before the plea hearing.
Speaking in open court the judge said, ‘The Crown Prosecution Service [in the region] should have made extra efforts to get these papers served on time.
“I am told the co-defendant’s solicitors only got their papers yesterday, which is unacceptable. I continue to be in contact with the Crown Prosecution Service to get them to improve their performance.’
Last month the boy was sentenced to a non-custodial sentence: a six month referral order. A referral order is a restorative justice measure and requires the convicted person to meet with community volunteers to address the causes and consequences of their crime.
The CPS explained paperwork for case had been missed after files were moved to a new office. It says that this was the only case out of all the files moved that it failed to update.
Bill Waddington is chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. He told the Bureau ‘we hear that solicitors are going to court time and time again and having to put in applications to court because the CPS has not served papers in time.
‘All that adds up to the time we have to spend on those matters,’ he explained. ‘It is no surprise that a matter that goes to trial now takes longer than it would have a few years ago.’
A CPS spokesperson said: ‘While these occurrences are always regrettable, provisional figures for 2013/14 indicate that the CPS complied with over 92% of Crown Court judges’ orders, up from 86% the previous year. We are working hard to increase this rate further.
‘With savings of 27% to our budget, naturally staff numbers have reduced, but we are protecting frontline teams and improving our overall performance. Conviction rates have remained consistent at 85% or above for the past eight years.
‘Conviction rates have remained consistent at 85% or above for the past eight years and the proportion of Crown Court trials ineffective due to prosecution reasons has fallen to 5% in 2013/14, the lowest level in four years.’
New survey of magistrates highlights serious concerns about self-representation in court.
Just 55% of available legal aid advice on housing cases was used last year.
Surprising lack of use of legal aid advice coincides with confusion about availability and fewer providers.