Efficiency in the criminal justice system Contents


1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), we took evidence from the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry), HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on the efficiency of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.2 The criminal justice system (the system) investigates, tries, punishes and rehabilitates people who are convicted or suspected of committing a crime. It incorporates a wide range of bodies with different functions and accountabilities. Police forces, the CPS and other bodies decide whether to charge defendants with an offence and bring prosecutions, and HMCTS, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, is responsible for the administration of the courts in which criminal trials take place. The prisons and probation services are responsible for the punishment and rehabilitation of convicted offenders. Other key participants in the system are alleged victims, witnesses, victims and witness services, the judiciary and lawyers.3 The judiciary is constitutionally independent of the executive branches of government.

2.The C&AG’s report focussed on the efficiency of the system from the point at which a defendant is charged with an offence, to the point at which a court case concludes. In the year to September 2015, around 1.7 million offences were dealt with through the courts.4 Central government spending on the system, excluding police, prisons and other bodies who bring prosecutions, is around £2 billion a year. This figure has fallen by 26% in real terms since 2010–11 and HMCTS resources have fallen by 35% in real terms over the same period. The Ministry has agreed to reduce its total spending by a further 15% by 2019–20 but both the CPS and the police expect their budgets to remain largely the same over next five years.5

3.The system is coordinated through the national Criminal Justice Board, a cross-governmental group chaired by the Secretary of State for Justice. Membership of the Board includes ministers and officials from the Ministry, HMCTS, the Home Office, the Attorney General’s office and the CPS, representatives of police forces, police and crime commissioners and senior members of the judiciary.6


4.There was a backlog of 51,830 cases awaiting trial in the Crown Court at the end of September 2015, an increase of 12,341 since the beginning of 2013 but lower than the peak of 55,116 reached at the end of 2014.7 Once a case has left the magistrates court, it takes on average 134 days before the Crown Court case begins, compared to 99 days in 2013.8 We asked HMCTS why it is taking longer for cases to progress through the courts. HMCTS attributed this to a combination of two factors. First, the overall number of cases increased from 80,000 in 2012–13 to 96,000 in 2013–14, and the courts did not have capacity to deal with the rise because the Ministry had reduced the number of days judges sit in courts following a drop in the volumes of crime recorded in the previous year. Second, average trial length has increased by 26% compared to five years ago as a result of an increase in the proportion of more complex cases, and historic sex abuse cases in particular. Trials for these cases can take longer as the evidence can be more complex.9

5.For the last five years, only around a third of trials in the Crown Court went ahead as planned on the day they were due to start. One in ten cases were not ready and were postponed to another day. Currently 24% of cases are withdrawn on the day they are due to start, most commonly because the defendant pleads guilty on the day.10 Delays and aborted hearings create extra work and waste scarce resources.11 For example, the Legal Aid Agency spent £93.3 million during 2014–15 on cases that did not go to trial.12 The CPS spent £21.5 million in 2014–15 on preparing cases that were not heard in court, £5.5 million of which was attributable to reasons within their control, such as prosecution case files not being complete or prosecution witnesses not coming to court.13 Many of the inefficiencies in the system are created where individuals and organisations do not get things right first time, for example a 2015 inspection found that 8.2% of police charging decisions were incorrect, and 38.4% of cases sampled were not reviewed by the CPS before reaching Court.14 The Ministry told us that too much of judges’ time is wasted, as they are dealing with things in court that should have been resolved elsewhere.15 The CPS wrote to us after the evidence session and said that currently around 80% of judicial orders made in the Crown Court are complied with within the required timescales.16 The CPS said that new ways of working under the ‘Better Case Management’ initiative17, together with increased digital working, should mean less judicial time is wasted because issues will be resolved before the hearing rather than during court sittings.18

6.The Ministry, HMCTS and the CPS all told us that they are operating with fewer resources than previously, and will need to cut spending still further over the next few years. Central government spending on the system has fallen by 26% since 2010–11.19 We challenged the Ministry and the CPS as to whether resource pressures in the individual parts of the system were leading to increased costs for others. For example, if the CPS have not prepared properly for a trial, it can lead to extra costs for the Ministry and HMCTS or, if police save themselves money by not collecting forensic evidence, it can make it harder for the CPS to build a case strong enough to persuade the defendant to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity.20 The CPS agreed that inefficiencies in one organisation shunt costs to others and that, when it gets things wrong, it does make the system ineffective but argued this is not always within its control.21 All parts of the system depend on each other, so it is in everyone’s interests to get things right first time.22 The CPS told us it is working with the police to improve the quality of files it receives, that national file standards on evidence are being piloted and will roll out in the summer.23

7.The system is the responsibility of a number of different parts of Government and of the judiciary, who are constitutionally independent.24 The Ministry explained that there is no single person or body that can direct everyone in the system because it is essential for an effective justice system that the executive cannot unduly influence the judiciary. However, many parts of the system are represented on the national Criminal Justice Board. This should allow them to take decisions collectively on how the system should work and what needs to change.25 The CPS believed that the Criminal Justice Board was one of the more effective ways of resolving problems and, in addition, the three bodies (the Ministry, the CPS and HMCTS) talked at senior levels on a regular basis.26 We asked whether the six-weekly Board meetings always consider the impact of changes in one part of the system on the other elements. HMCTS did not confirm this directly but assured us that the Board was very practical in the way it worked.27 The Ministry told us that it has introduced a new Crown Court performance tool, which should bring provide better evidence on how courts are performing.28

Serving victims and witnesses

8.The Ministry’s July 2015 report on public confidence in the criminal justice system showed that 43% of those who have experienced the system as a victim believed the system to be effective, compared to a figure of 49% for those who have not. Only 55% of people who had been a victim or witness would be prepared to act as a witness in court would be prepared to do so again.29 HMCTS considered that it had not always given the necessary focus to victims and witnesses on a national level, despite many court staff working very hard on this in individual courts.30 The CPS said that victims should be the focus of everything the system does, and the Ministry agreed. The CPS told us that its most recent survey showed that 75% of witnesses and 65% of victims thought they had received a good service but the CPS recognised that it still needed to improve on these figures.31

9.We asked whether the system serves victims as well as it should. For example, we are aware that late changes to arrangements can cause witnesses practical difficulties, such as getting time off work. Witnesses can wait on average around 2 hours to give evidence in the Crown Court and one in five witnesses wait for 4 hours or more.32 A recent report by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate on how victims are treated found that some victims had received letters from different parts of the system giving two different outcomes to their case. The CPS told us that, together with the police, it is carrying out a review to identify duplication between the two organisations because victims and witnesses want just one point of contact to go to for accurate information or if something goes wrong.33 The CPS said that it does talk to Police forces in many areas to make sure information is available early on, and is accurate and consistent, but this does not happen everywhere.34 HMCTS told us that it had done a lot over the last 12 months to improve the service to victims. For example, it has staff in courts with specific responsibilities for delivering a good service for victims and witnesses and every region has a facility for victims to give evidence over a video link, so that they do not necessarily have to come to court. The Ministry added that some vulnerable witnesses are now able to give evidence outside the courtroom. This is recorded so that it can be played during a trial. Both the Ministry and HMCTS recognised there is more to do and HMCTS told us that it plans to put court users, including victims and witnesses, at the heart of a redesigned court experience as part of its reform programme.35

10.HMCTS told us that it does not systematically measure victims and witnesses experience of the court system. It, currently, has a piece of work underway looking at how to do this and will track how victims and witnesses experiences improve as the court reforms begin to take effect.36 The CPS added that it surveyed just under 8,000 victims and witnesses around 18 months ago. The survey had given useful feedback on areas where victims and witnesses felt things were not working well and the CPS intends to use this survey as a baseline to track how views change. Some improvements have already been introduced as a result, for example the CPS issued revised guidance on speaking to victims and witnesses at court and has reintroduced paralegal staff to courts to work more closely with victims 37

11.We were interested to hear whether victims’ views are taken into account at the most senior levels. The Ministry and CPS told us that victims are the core focus of the system so we were surprised to hear that Baroness Newlove, the Victims Commissioner, is not a member of the Criminal Justice Board. The Ministry told us that she does attend any meetings where victims’ issues are discussed, such as at the most recent meeting during which there was a session dedicated to victims.38

Regional variation

12.Victims and witnesses have a different experience of the criminal justice system, depending on where in the country the trial takes place. In the year to September 2015, the percentage of trials that go ahead, as scheduled, varied from around 20% in Greater Manchester to 70% in North Wales. The average length of time between an offence being committed and the case coming to a conclusion in court also varied significantly, from 243 days in Durham to 418 days in Sussex.39 Since our evidence session in March 2016, more recent data have become available to cover regional performance in the calendar year to December 2015. Based on the more recent data, variations in regional performance are summarised in the Appendix to this report. HMCTS agreed that there were significant variations in performance across the country. It considered that these were mainly caused by differences in the volume, type and complexity of the cases being tried at different courts. HMCTS said that Manchester has a particular challenging mix of cases and that North Wales has fewer, less serious cases so it is not necessarily fair to compare the two. Some courts specialise in certain types of offences, for example Southwark Crown Court has the highest percentage of complex fraud trials. HMCTS considered that the different make up of the work at individual courts was largely outside its control.40 However, HMCTS also told us that it does take into account the volume and type of cases being tried when it tells each court how many days it has available to hear cases each year (known as “sitting days”). If necessary it can also adjust the allocation of sitting days during the year.41

13.We challenged HMCTS and the Ministry to explain why courts which operate to the same national standards, and that should face similar challenges in terms of workload and location, such as Greater Manchester and Birmingham or Suffolk and Norfolk, also report very different performance. HMCTS accepted that it does not understand all the reasons for regional variation. It is looking at this and, for example, it has identified that the rates for early guilty pleas vary hugely between areas and believes that this is down to differences in culture and approach.42 The CPS and the Ministry agreed with HMCTS that changes being introduced nationally, such as digital systems and the Better Case Management initiative, would help reduce regional variation. Better Case Management has been developed with the agreement of all parties and using best practice from areas that are performing well.43

14.The Ministry told us that Better Case Management, ‘Transforming Summary Justice’44 and the introduction of the ‘Common Platform’45 were not yet reflected in performance data.46 We pressed the Ministry and HMCTS on what level of variation it would consider to be acceptable between different areas. Neither organisation could give us a baseline for acceptable performance but the Ministry said it would expect to see a smaller difference between roughly comparable areas in five years time.47

15.The case study visits undertaken for the C&AG’s Report identified a range of innovative approaches in individual courts that were making a positive impact on the system. For example, Birmingham Crown Court had introduced a new system whereby police officers can now request appointments to obtain search warrants from judges. They no longer have to wait around in court for long periods of time waiting for a judge to be free, thus making better use of both police and court time. These initiatives were not always being shared effectively, as awareness and use of mechanisms for sharing good practice across the system was variable.48 We were interested to hear how good practice is spread and if all areas will now have to adopt the same approach as Birmingham. HMCTS agreed that they wanted best practice to be national.49 We asked whether this was possible given it would require the agreement of the judiciary, who are independent. HMCTS told us that it already works with the judiciary to spread best practice, as it has done in mandating Better Case Management, and that it will be able to implement the appointment system nationally in partnership with the judiciary if it decides this is the right course of action.50

16.The courts inspectorate was abolished in 2010. The Ministry and HMCTS were unable to comment on what value the courts inspectorate had added in terms of spreading good practice or whether its abolition had made it more difficult for the system to learn from long-standing problems, such as the way victims and witnesses are treated. HMCTS believed that both the judiciary and courts staff were already committed to making things work better and did not necessarily need an external organisation to compel them to make improvements.51

2 C&AG’s Report, Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System, Session 2015–16, HC 852, 1 March 2016

3 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 4, Figure 2

4 C&AG’s Report, para 1

5 C&AG’s Report, para 1.6

6 C&AG’s Report, para 1.3

7 National Statistics, Criminal court statistics quarterly, England and Wales, October to December 2015, Table C1, accessed on 14 April 2016. The figures quoted are different to those in the supplementary evidence note, dated 24 March, from the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS, because of subsequent updates.

8 C&AG’s Report, para 1.8–1.9, Ministry of Justice and HMCTS (ECJ0002)

9 Qq 101–103, Ministry of Justice and HMCTS (ECJ0002)

10 C&AG’s report, para 1.13–1.15

11 C&AG’s report, para 10–11

13 C&AG’s Report, para 10

14 C&AG’s Report, para 13

16 Crown Prosecution Service (ECJ0001)

17 The Better Case Management initiative aims to improve case management in the Crown Court. It includes a renewed emphasis on a uniform national early guilty plea scheme, and Crown Court disclosure in document-heavy cases.

19 C&AG’s Report para 1.6

29 C&AG’s Report para 1.20

39 C&AG’s Report, para 3.2 to 3.3

44 Transforming Summary Justice is a joint criminal justice system initiative, aimed at simplifying the process for summary cases in the magistrates’ courts. This includes simplifying cases and streamlining the system, identifying cases for early guilty pleas and securing these pleas earlier on, and ensuring smoother case progression.

45 The Common Platform is a project led by CPS and HMCTS to develop a single case management system. It includes a digital case file, which will reduce the amount of paper used and move as much as possible of the process online, with the aim of achieving a fully digital system.

48 Q 38, C&AG’s Report para 16, 3.13

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

23 May 2016