The Crown Prosecution Service: Gatekeeper of the Criminal Justice System - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Audit Office


  This paper outlines the main conclusions of the Comptroller & Auditor General's Report on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) delivered in 2006, with a report from the Committee of Public Accounts in the same year. It should be noted that these reports date back to 2006 and that the Service has put considerable effort into addressing the recommendations of the reports. Progress was most recently reported in the Autumn Performance Report.[4] The NAO has not revisited the CPS since 2006 but may do in the future.

  The role of the Comptroller & Auditor General with reference to the CPS is as external auditor: the C&AG certifies the financial accounts of the CPS annually. He also has a responsibility to report to parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the CPS under the National Audit Act, 1983; as, when and in what way he reports is within his discretion. The report concentrated on the work of the CPS in relation to Magistrates' Courts because this constituted the majority of CPS effort.

  The Comptroller & Auditor General's remit is to report to Parliament on value for money; this differs from the Chief Inspector's role which is to enhance the quality of justice through independent inspection and assessment of prosecution services, and in so doing improve their effectiveness and efficiency. There is crossover obviously and NAO and HMCPSI colleagues consult and discuss matter of mutual interest on a regular basis.

  The NAO report in 2006 considered the Crown Prosecution Service's role in the effective use of magistrates' hearings, specifically whether the Service plans and prepares cases to make effective use of hearings; uses court time for the purposes of the hearings listed; and is taking action to improve its performance in magistrates' courts.

  The report found that:

    — An estimated 28% of all pre-trial hearings (784,000 annually) were ineffective. The defence was responsible for just over 478,000 of these, often where the defendant failed to attend, and the prosecution (that is the Crown Prosecution Service or the police or both) for about 165,000, of which we estimated that about 71,000 could be attributed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

    — Published statistics showed that 62% of magistrates' courts trials were ineffective or ''cracked'' in 2004-05. Similarly, the defence was responsible for the majority of failed trials and nearly 17% (19,500) were attributable to the Crown Prosecution Service.

    — The NAO calculated that ineffective hearings and cracked and ineffective trials cost the taxpayer £173 million each year, of which just under £24 million was attributable to the Crown Prosecution Service, caused by process errors or poor administration.

  Individual prosecutors deal with a large volume of cases, often at very short notice. Nevertheless, the NAO report found that problems with the Crown Prosecution Service's planning and preparation for magistrates' courts hearings contributed to ineffective hearings. There was insufficient oversight of cases and a lack of clear ownership of cases. CPS lawyers needed to be clear who owns a case, who is taking it through the system, to try and cut down the amount of switches of cases that happen all the way through the system, so that they make good decisions early on about what the charges should be and what evidence needs to be gathered by police.

  CPS lawyers often did not have enough time to prepare for hearings and Her Majesty's Courts' Service staff moved cases between courtrooms, so that prosecuting lawyers had to present cases they had not prepared. This practice in particular needs to be minimised as it raises the risk of an ineffective outcome.

  We also found that there could be more effective systems for prioritising and progressing urgent or high-risk cases, particularly those involving children or sexual offences to minimise the trauma already experienced by victims. This meant that the CPS needed a case management system which would allow the identification of these cases and enough resources to be able to allocate them to an experienced lawyer within a reasonable timescale.

  The report also noted an issue with general bureaucracy. Administrative errors by the CPS could result in prosecutions collapsing unnecessarily, at a cost to the public purse. Poor record keeping and slow response times to messages were particular issues. The CPS were not using technology well at the time, including simple technology like voicemail.

  The police and the courts contributed further to the inefficiencies that resulted in prosecution delays: often the police did not provide the evidence in time for the hearing; the police constituted the main stakeholder for the CPS and good liaison with the police was vital to making sure that the necessary evidence is there and collected, available for review and available for trial. A proportion of the cases in the NAO sample could not proceed at trial because the right evidence was not there on the day. The quality of the relationship between the CPS and the police was crucial and relied on the personalities in particular areas in order to work well. An end to end target owned jointly by police and CPS for getting cases to trial could act as a spur to better performance.

  Nationally, the Crown Prosecution Service was seeking to improve its performance through initiatives such as No Witness, No Justice, which aimed to support prosecution witnesses through the courts process, and the Charging Initiative which passed responsibility for determining charges from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. Also, it is playing a key part in Local Criminal Justice Boards to promote joint working with the other criminal justice agencies.

  We found good examples of local action by Crown Prosecution Service offices to improve performance at magistrates' court hearings. The Cardiff unit, which was visited by the NAO, was found to be working well. People were co-located, they were working well together and it provided a model for a new way doing business that the CPS needs for Magistrates' Court's case management. They were intending to roll out this model across the country. However, generally, the Crown Prosecution Service needed to do more to re-organise and modernise its management of magistrates' court casework.

CPS' response to the PAC report

  The PAC report on the "Effective Use of Magistrates' Courts Hearings" was published in October 2006. The Service made specific promises of action in their Treasury Minute response to the PAC report and the main ones are set out below. An up to date position statement from the CPS is included in their Autumn Performance report of 2008 and is summarised below. The PAC report made 17 recommendations to the CPS covering case management, the use of technology to improve processes and working with other criminal justice agencies. One recommendation was directed to the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) (now the Ministry of Justice) and six recommendations encouraged closer joint working with other agencies. Below is detailed the progress against the 17 recommendations made in the report.


  PAC conclusion (i): Develop and implement nationally the good local practice operating in Cardiff, so that small teams of lawyers and administrative staff are responsible for progressing all cases from a specific police command unit.

  PAC conclusion (ii): Nominate a member of each team to be available during working hours to respond to queries on the team's caseload.

  PAC conclusion (iii): Introduce and develop a time recording system to identify whether the CPS has the right mix of legal, caseworker and administrative staff, and to effectively manage its resources.

  PAC conclusion (iv): Make full use of the CPS's electronic case management system (COMPASS) capabilities by requiring all CPS staff to update the system when moving files.

Progress on (i)—(iv):

  A new business model for the magistrates' courts has been developed drawing on the good practice outlined in the NAO report. The new business model has been implemented in all areas. A key feature is the implementation of Proactive Case Progression Teams (PCPTs) which ensures that staff are available to respond to queries about their caseload. The new business model means that more effective use is made of legal, caseworker and administrative staff. The CPS continues to explore (through better use of management information and time recording) how to make the best use of staff resources in magistrates' courts. Mandatory recording of file location was introduced across the CPS in April 2008.


  PAC conclusion (v): Work with Her Majesty's Court Service (HMCS) to establish 24 hour courts as "one stop shops" in city areas, where those arrested for minor offences could be dealt with immediately.

Progress on (v):

  Earlier pilots of 24 hour courts concluded that they did not provide value for money and the criminal justice system has not pursued the idea further since then. The criminal justice system is exploring the use of virtual courts which provide video links between courts and police stations. A pilot of the virtual court is planned for London and further pilots will begin in 2009.


  PAC conclusion (vi): The DCA should follow their endorsement of the effectiveness of District Judges, consult further with the Head of the Judiciary, on the case for a significant increase in their number, particularly in city areas, in order to speed up the delivery of summary justice.

HMCS Progress on (vi):

  The Ministry of Justice believes the current mix of magistrates and district judges continues to deliver the necessary expertise to deal with the workload of the magistrates' courts. District Judges are already concentrated in the main metropolitan areas where the workload is greatest. The case for creating a new district judge post continues to be based on a business case prepared by HMCS. The Department has begun a review of the process, with the judiciary and interested stakeholders, to ensure that HMCS can continue to provide the service the public expect. Between October 2006 and October 2008 a further nine fulltime district judges were appointed to the magistrates' courts. There are currently about 30,000 magistrates and 141 full-time district judges (magistrates' courts).


  PAC conclusion (vii): Mark cases requiring medical or CCTV evidence as high risk, and review them weekly to obtain the necessary evidence in time for the hearing.

Progress on (vii):

  The new business model has introduced a time readiness aspect which ensures that all cases are trial ready two weeks in advance of the magistrates' court listing date. This means that any high risk cases, including those requiring medical or CCTV evidence, are identified and sufficient time exists to gather further evidence as required.


  PAC conclusion (viii): Examine the reasons for dropping cases on the day of the trial as part of its regular review of area performance to identify ways in which its processes might be improved.

Progress on (viii):

  Information on ineffective trials which includes cases dropped on the day of the trial is available to all 42 Areas. The reasons for ineffective trials are discussed with the CPS's criminal justice partners and lessons are identified to help improve performance in future. The CPS's performance on cracked and ineffective trials continued to improve in 2007-08.


  PAC conclusion (ix): Take a risk based approach to quality assurance, focusing on cases that are more likely to experience delays, and periodically disseminate lessons learned.

Progress on (ix):

  Case Management Panels (CMPs) have been instigated to keep the top tier of cases under review. Crown Court cases due to last six months or more (posing greatest risk to the reputation of the CPS) are subject to CMPs chaired by the DPP; cases due to last eight weeks to six months are subject to CMPs led by Chief Crown Prosecutors. CMPs keep prosecution processes, scope, timeliness and resources of high risk cases under regular review throughout the life of the case. In addition Casework Quality Assurance (CQA) is a scheme through which over 25,000 files are examined each year to ensure that quality standards are met. Furthermore, the CPS has established closer monitoring of cases subject to custody time limits.


  PAC conclusion (x): Provide electronic equipment, which allows legal staff across the CPS to record case information at court and automatically transfer it to the COMPASS system.

Progress on (x):

  Electronic links have now been established to 169 courts. The CPS continues to work with HMCS to install electronic links between the courts and the CPS.


  PAC conclusion (xi): Provide CPS lawyers during the 2006/07 financial year with technology such as pagers to enable them to be contacted more easily when away from the office.

Progress on (xi):

  CPS lawyers can be contacted more easily through the provision of call-forwarding facilities, enabling calls to be automatically forwarded from their office telephone extension to their mobile phone. Blackberry devices are also available to provide mobile email access and in early 2009, it is planned to extend the mobile network access through the provision of 3G network enabled laptops.


  PAC conclusion (xii): Equip each CPS office with a DVD player on which to review evidence.

Progress on (xii):

  All CPS staff have access to a DVD player on which to review evidence.


  PAC conclusion (xiii): Encourage Local Criminal Justice Boards to seek greater availability of DVD players in courts.

Progress on (xiii):

  HMCS, as part of the videolinks upgrade programme, has provided a total of 429 courtrooms with equipment which include DVD players. The technology was used in the CJSSS programme to view evidence and assisted the programme to make the great improvements in timeliness that have been seen in adult magistrates' courts and more recently in youth courts as well.


  PAC conclusion (xiv): Take the lead in initiating discussions with the police, the Courts Service, manufacturers, trade associations, and other interested parties, to explore the scope for a national CCTV standard to provide consistency across the industry.

Progress on (xiv):

  This is being dealt with as part of the Home Office's national CCTV Strategy.


  PAC conclusion (xv): Seek co-operation from HMCS to list each CPS team's cases together so that lawyers can present more of their own cases in court.

  PAC conclusion (xvi): Pursue with HMCS the grouping of straightforward cases in court listings, setting and monitoring joint monthly targets for the number of court sessions covered by designated caseworkers (now known as Associate Prosecutors/APs), thereby releasing lawyers to manage more complex cases.

Progress on (xv) and (xvi):

  The CPS and HMCS continue to work together nationally and locally, in line with the Senior Presiding Judge's listing guidance, to improve listing arrangements so that APs can present more cases in the magistrates' courts and Crown Advocates can present more cases in the Crown Court.


  PAC conclusion (xvii): Set up a national protocol with local National Health Service (NHS) trusts to improve the timeliness of medical reports.

Progress on (xvii):

  The CPS and the British Medical Association have a draft version of the protocol and this is presently being considered by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

July 2009

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Prepared 6 August 2009