Courts are ‘outdated and overfilled’

By staff

Crown courts are overfilled and using old unsupported equipment leaving them open to errors, it has been revealed.

A report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) today found courtrooms in the south east were operating at or near to capacity, resulting in long waiting times which may adversely affect victims.

One of the two IT systems used to record trial information, the 20-year old CREST, is no longer supported by its manufacture and requires data to be entered manually by staff when court dates or locations are changed.

The report said this led both to “operational risks” which could compromise the administration of justice, and to increased staffing costs.

“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,” said Tim Burr, head of the NAO.

“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.”

HM courts service has tried to ease the backlog of cases in overcrowded courts by holding cases in magistrate’s courts or moving blocks of court dates to other locations.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth seized on the report as proof of the out-of-date status of court service computer system.

“This is yet more evidence that our criminal justice system is chronically underfunded and overstretched,” he said.
“While the cost of pen-pushers at the Ministry of Justice continues to soar, the courts do not have the basic resources needed to function effectively.”

There are plans to spend £120 million over the next three years to create 30 extra courtrooms and a new staffing model by 2010 to improve learning and development programmes.

“This report is very worrying,” said shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham.

“As the NAO points out, requiring staff to re-enter data manually risks errors creeping in.

“If the progress or outcome of a trial is misrecorded, then offenders may receive the wrong sentence or even avoid court altogether.”

The report also said improvements were required for the other IT system XHIBIT.

Introduced in 2006, it records real time information on the progress of trials and their results but was not designed to incorporate new or revised legislation, leading some commentators to describe it as inflexible.