Prosecution delays ‘cost taxpayer £55m a year’

Failures by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police in the magistrates’ court system are costing taxpayers £55 million a year, a new report warns.

The public accounts committee (PAC) says most of these problems are “avoidable”, as they include delays in providing evidence, mislaid files, and the failure to allow sufficient time to prepare or to properly prioritise cases.

Half of the 190,466 trials that had to be cancelled in magistrates’ courts last year were scrapped because of the defence team, the MPs say, often because the offender changed their plea to guilty at the last minute.

But more than 45,000 trials (38 per cent) did not go ahead because the prosecution was not ready, or the charges were dropped. Up to 180,000 pre-trial magistrate hearings that also had to be abandoned last year did not go ahead because of failings in the CPS.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said the number of delayed and ineffective trials in magistrates’ courts was “alarming”.

He argued it was not only a waste of taxpayers’ money – the total cost last year was £173 million – but an “affront to society’s expectation and demand” of swift justice.

“The CPS needs to cast a sharp eye on its own organisational structure and also improve its system for preparing for magistrates’ court cases by adopting current best practice,” he said.

“It must also tackle the cultural resistance within the organisation to 21st century working practices. The management of cases must be radically improved with fewer barriers between lawyers and administrative staff.”

Shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve said the report painted a “pretty shoddy picture” of the criminal justice system, where delays added “insult to injury” to victims by prolonging the process.

“No wonder confidence in the system is so low”, he said, adding: “The answer is to reform and simplify the system – it is not to replace the system with a form of administrative ‘justice’ whereby the courts are sidelined and punishments are dished out by any old official.”

The director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, acknowledged there were “too many ineffective hearings in magistrates’ courts” but said measures had been taken to address the problem and these were already yielding results.

The proportion of ineffective trials fell from 31 per cent in July to September 2002 to 23 per cent in January to March 2005, and in June to August this year it was 19 per cent.

“However, most of the responsibility for ineffective trials lies with the defence. The CPS is directly responsible for only 17 per cent of the costs identified by the PAC. In just over half of the cases where the trial did not go ahead, the defence was responsible,” he said.

“There are cross-government issues which need a cross-government solution and we are working very closely with our partners in the criminal justice system to take forward initiatives which will transform the way we do business in the magistrates’ courts.”