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March 4, 2016

Two thirds of Crown Court trials do not go ahead as planned

The latest report from the National Audit Office on efficiency in the criminal courts makes hair-raising reading.  The headlines are that the vast majority of Crown Court trials do not happen on the day they are supposed to, that £21.5 million is spent by the Crown Prosecution Service preparing for cases that don’t go to trial and that £93.3 million is spend by the Legal Aid Agency on cases that never get to court. This waste of money is tragic, particularly given the number of people forced to represent themselves and others who don’t get compensated for their legal costs when acquitted.

The report is also hair-raising in identifying some of the underlying reasons for inefficiency in the system including a lack of common purpose and common objectives.  This creates unintended consequences. Trials are over-listed, ie more are booked than could in reality happen.  This means that if cases collapse, less court time is wasted.  But its an imperfect system so, too often, the over listing is just that and scheduled hearings have to be postponed.  A witness who turns up on the right day, and is bumped on to another day, is likely to be fed up and not turn up again.  In 7% of magistrates’ court trials and 2% of Crown Court trials witnesses fail to turn up.

A system which is so inefficient needs to manage change, to accept challenge and to spread innovation. But according to the NAO and HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service) staff, it is not.  In the latest staff survey 43% of staff said change was not managed well by HMCTS and 34% didn’t think it was safe to challenge the way things are done. The NAO said innovative practice was poorly identified and disseminated.  This is ironic given that the courts system is now highly centralised.  One of the (few) advantages of a centralised system should be the ability to spread good practice more easily.

Another recent story highlights a mini-collapse in the system.  Courts administrators process breach arrest warrants. These are issued to police  “when someone convicted of a crime fails to attend court to explain why they haven’t complied with conditions attached to their sentences”.  Someone realised that in some courts, like Manchester, the system had broken down and the police were receiving some warrants late, or not at all.  Clearly this should not happen, and disciplinary action has apparently been taken against staff.  This may be necessary, but I’m more interested in understanding the under-lying reasons why it happened – are clerical staff overwhelmed with work? Were they being incentivised to focus on something else?

HMCTS has a fairly new Chief Executive, Natalie Ceeney, and an ambitious change programme.  I only hope it moves quickly enough to prevent more collapses of the system.