1.The criminal justice system is bedevilled by long standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies, and costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another. Around two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court are delayed or do not go ahead at all. There was a backlog of 51,830 cases in the system awaiting a hearing at Crown Court as at September 2015. Victims and witnesses are having to wait longer for their day in court: 134 days between the case leaving the Magistrates court and the start of the Crown Court hearing, compared to 99 days two years ago. Too much costly court time is wasted dealing with the consequences of parties simply not having done what they should have done, for example 38.4% of cases sampled in a 2015 inspection were not reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) before they reached court. The system is administered by different parts of government with different budgets and pressures and decisions taken by one part can create inefficiency and increase costs in other parts, for example if the police save money by not collecting expensive forensic evidence this can add to the work of the CPS in preparing their case.
Recommendation: The Criminal Justice Board should set out what it will do to improve co-ordination of the system. In particular, this should include:
a)ensuring that changes in one part of the system that might effect other parts are brought to the Board before they are implemented;
b)developing better information on cost shunting, which should be a standing item on the Board agenda; and
c)publishing, by the end of 2016, the performance information gathered through the new Crown Court performance tool, so that court users can see how the service they receives compares with the rest of the country.
2.The criminal justice system is not good enough at supporting victims and witnesses. The system relies on victims and witnesses coming forward and giving evidence but only 55% of those who have been a witness say they would be prepared to do so again. The service victims and witnesses receive is not good enough. One in five witnesses can wait for 4 hours or more to give evidence in Court and we heard examples of different parts of the system sending victims conflicting information on the same case. Despite the welcome assurances we received that victims should be at the heart of how the system operates, we were surprised to hear that the Victims Commissioner is not a member of the Criminal Justice Board and that the CPS and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have not routinely been measuring victim satisfaction until recently. We are encouraged that the Ministry, HMCTS and the CPS are now beginning to take more seriously their responsibilities to understand the experience of victims and witnesses, and look forward to the measures announced by HMCTS to track improvements in victim and witness experiences over the course of the reform programme.
Recommendation: The Ministry, with others on the Criminal Justice Board, needs to demonstrate a step change in service to victims and witnesses and it should report back to us on progress in a year’s time. A good first step would be to give the Victims Commissioner the option of becoming a full member of the Board.
3.Timely access to justice is too dependent on where victims and witnesses live. There are unacceptable variations in performance in different areas of the country. For example, in the year to September 2015 victims of crime in North Wales had a 7 in 10 chance that the Crown Court trial would go ahead as scheduled, but for those living in Greater Manchester there was only a 2 in 10 chance; and the length of time victims had to wait between an offence being committed and the conclusion of the case at the Crown Court ranged from 243 days in Durham to 418 days in Sussex. The Ministry admits that it does not understand all the reasons for this variation, but nonetheless argued to us that it is largely due to factors it cannot control, such as there being different types of cases tried at individual courts, with a higher proportion of more complex cases in some areas. We are not convinced by that explanation. HMCTS confirmed that case mix is taken into account when deciding how many days each court should sit. In addition, there were still discrepancies between broadly similar areas which should be operating according to the same national standards, such as Birmingham and Manchester or Norfolk and Suffolk. Neither the Ministry nor HMCTS could tell us what level of variation between areas would be acceptable. The NAO identified examples of good practice in the way courts are run, but these are not currently shared more widely, meaning poorer performing areas are not getting the opportunity to learn from the experiences of their more successful counterparts.
Recommendation: The Ministry should work with others on the Criminal Justice Board to publish a plan to share good practice nationally and bring the worst performing areas (at least in terms of average waiting times and effective trial rates) up to an agreed minimum acceptable level of performance. The plan should include a timetable for when it expects to achieve the improvements.
4.The Ministry has been too slow to recognise where the system is under stress, and to take action to deal with it. Central government spending on the criminal justice system has fallen by 26% since 2010–11 and the Ministry has exhausted the scope to cut costs without pushing the system beyond breaking point. In some areas, even if the court makes use of its full allowance of sitting days, there are not enough judges to hear all the cases. The number of CPS lawyers has fallen by 27% since March 2010, and we were concerned to hear that the CPS struggle to find counsel to prosecute cases, as the criminal bar has reduced in size. The Ministry did not respond quickly enough to the backlog of cases building up as the number of longer, more complex cases, including historical sex abuse, rose at a time when available sitting days had been cut. We welcome the Ministry’s commitment, albeit belated, to increase the number of sitting days to deal with the worst Crown Court backlogs.
Recommendation: The Ministry and the CPS need to have a better understanding of the likely consequences of cutting available resources. The CPS struggles to find prosecutors as a result of reductions in legal aid spending, and the courts have struggled with backlogs after sitting days were reduced. Both organisations must monitor system performance carefully as the reform programme takes effect, and respond promptly to any further signs of stress.
5.The reform programme is welcome, but the full benefit will not be seen for another four years, and users of the system should not have to wait this long to see real change. The Ministry’s ambitious reform programme is designed to tackle many of the problems and inefficiencies in the system, in part by reducing reliance on paper records and enabling more flexible digital working. We were told it will take four years before all the benefits are delivered in full, but that the programme will be delivered in stages, meaning some improvements should be seen before then. The Ministry can do more to improve the system in the meantime, through better sharing of the many small practical improvements being introduced by hard-working staff in individual courts. Many of the planned changes, for example the CPS and police seeking to avoid duplication in victim and witness services, are things that we consider should be happening already, but other elements of the reform programme will be more challenging. Government does not have a good track record of delivering projects that involve significant changes to IT. To really see an improvement in performance, the Ministry will also need to change cultures and behaviours, so that everyone is incentivised to do the best job they can and act in the best interests of the system as a whole.
Recommendation: The Ministry and the CPS should work with others on the Criminal Justice Board to agree and publish by the end of 2016 a timetable that sets out what specific measurable improvements will be achieved, and by when, over the course of the next four years.
6.HMCTS does not yet have a credible plan for securing value for money from its estate. HMCTS began consulting on a programme of court closures in July 2015, but told us it only started working on a long term asset management plan to prioritise investment in its estate in December 2015. We were surprised to hear that HMCTS has continued to spend limited resources on courts which are now being closed, for example £600,000 on Torquay Magistrates Court over the last six years, including a recent £100,000 investment in new windows. We agree that an estate comprising fewer, bigger courts has the potential to provide more flexibility in scheduling trials, but remain concerned that the impact on all court users has not been properly considered. It can be difficult, for example, for jurors to get to court due to lack of public transport or funds for a taxi.
Recommendation: HMCTS must, as a matter of urgency, develop an asset management plan for the courts estate that prevents more public money being wasted on courts that are about to close. This should include explicit consideration of arrangements for jurors, victims and witnesses to travel to the fewer, larger courts that will remain.
7.Plans to devolve greater responsibility for criminal justice are as yet unclear. Devolution might present opportunities to improve local cooperation, but could also risk adding more complexity to an already fragmented system. The March budget included an announcement on the transfer of powers over criminal justice to Greater Manchester and Lincolnshire. The Ministry could not provide many further details, or confirm whether staff will be relocated to support the devolved responsibilities. Police, the CPS and HMCTS are currently organised differently at regional level and area boundaries rarely correspond, causing difficulties at local level. The selective devolution of powers may add to the confusion. We are reassured that the Ministry will continue to be accountable to Parliament for the delivery of criminal justice in the devolved areas and that national standards for the system will still apply. It is not clear, though, exactly what might actually be devolved in practice. On courts, HMCTS told us that devolution meant stronger involvement of local communities in decisions about the location of courts but this does not sound like anything more than what should be happening already. We expect the Ministry to closely monitor the results of devolution, particularly given that Greater Manchester has the poorest effective trial rate in the country.
Recommendation: The Ministry must learn the lessons of devolution in other areas of government: it should set out clearly by the end of September 2016 what it is trying to achieve and how it will monitor whether devolution is working.
1 Since our evidence session, the Ministry has published more recent data on regional performance. The data for the calendar year 2015 is attached as an appendix.
23 May 2016