Legal Aid Agency spends £93m on cases not heard in court

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice,Government & politics

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The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has spent more than £93m funding defence counsel in cases that did not go to trial, the National Audit Office has found.

According to the public spending watchdog’s Efficiency in the criminal justice system report, published today, two-thirds of cases did not progress as planned despite case management improving since 2010-11.

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The proportion of trials that go ahead as planned in the magistrates’ court increased from 34% in the year ending September 2011 to 39% in the year ending September 2015. The proportion of Crown court cases that collapsed on the day of the trial fell from 30% to 24%.

However, in 2014-15 the LAA funded defence counsel ‘to the tune of £93.3m’ to represent defendants whose cases never went to trial, excluding guilty pleas. The Crown Prosecution Service spent £21.5m preparing cases that were not heard in court.

The report states that police officers in London who spend a day waiting to give evidence cost £139 a day. Expert witnesses, whose legal aid hourly rates vary between £40-£200, may still be paid even if a case does not progress as planned.

Although fewer cases were entering the criminal justice system, the NAO backs up the lord chief justice's assertion that cases have become more complex.

The number of sexual offences cases in the Crown court has risen by 12% in the past five years, from 9,178 in 2010-11 to 10,309 in 2014-15. The CPS 'expects a further rise’ in 2015-16. This includes ‘historic’ sex abuse and child sex abuse cases, involving vulnerable victims and witnesses.

In magistrates’ courts, the number of domestic violence cases, which require ‘significant victim support’, has increased.

Prosecutions for other serious offences are also increasing, including terrorism, organised crime, drugs and fraud. 'These cases can involve complex evidence, and trials with multiple defendants,' the report states.

In the Crown court, backlogs increased by 34% between March 2013 and September 2015. The waiting time for a hearing has increased from 99 days to 134 days since September 2013.

The report also highlights ‘significant regional variation’ in performance.

A victim of crime in North Wales has a seven in 10 chance that the trial will go ahead at Crown court on the day it is scheduled. This drops to a two in 10 chance in Greater Manchester.

In 2014-15, the length of time between the offence and completion of the case ranged from 243 days in Durham to 418 days in Sussex.

Citing examples of inefficiencies when a case comes to court, the report states that court listing was the ‘single most common reason’ that a case had to be rescheduled last year, accounting for 21% of ineffective trials in the Crown court and 30% in the magistrates’ court.

In some cases, technology and facilities ’may not function as intended’. During one of its case study visits, the NAO witnessed a trial where ‘the police had so little faith in the court’s equipment that they told us they hired their own at a cost of £500 a day’.

Concluding that the criminal justice system is ‘not currently delivering value for money’, the report recommends that the Criminal Justice Board agree on what ‘good’ looks like for the system as a whole.

With 'no common view of what success looks like', the NAO says organisations 'may not act in the best interests of the whole system'.

Readers' comments (6)

  • So the NAO says that there is "no common view of what success looks like"

    Sober reflection makes us think how far backwards the nation has travelled, in terms of denying the ordinary citizen access to justice.Is it really news anymore that the decline of UK justice is accelerating?

    The LAA , an executive agency of the MOJ , the ministry itself with a title having Orwellian undertones,performs ever more inefficiently. So?

    The real issue here is the slow dismantling of the rule of law in the
    UK in all its manifestations.

    Online probate for instance is due to become live in 2017 and the MOJ is considering the abolition of practising fee income for the Law Society.

    The fundamentals of our legal system are being slowly removed,without proper public debate,and indeed without proper consideration of the long term consequences for society.

    The real tragedy is that there are insufficient numbers amongst us to care anymore.

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  • LA being spent on counsel to defeat matters before they go to trial and crack is good business but gives the Red Top press the excuse to bleat on about fat cat lawyers and so on.

    That we see 1/4 of CC trials collapsing on the first day is a damning indictment of the CPS.

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  • Hang on anon, 76% don't collapse, which is 76% of those contentious enough to get to trial rather than be a guilty plea. Additionally the largest reason for cases not going ahead is stated to be court listing issues, doesn't sound like too damning an indictment of CPS.

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  • The major issue with the CJS is that the State and its agents and Agencies fails to consult with "the defence community" aka Solicitors in private practice about reform of the system. The Defence Community were excluded by statute from LCJBs. Reluctantly some set up sub-committees to which "the Defence" were invited.
    The reason for this exclusion is the prejudice directed towards "the Defence" based upon the notion that all we are interested in is the interests of defendants and the fee. Apparently the Prosecution and Courts hold the higher moral high ground. In any event, we are told, that the LAA will represent our interests.
    There is no-one in the Courts or at CPS or in the Police or in Probation who has defined "efficiency" so that when reforms are proposed or discussed they can be assessed against criteria to assure that what is proposed will deliver efficiency.
    Reform is haphazard.
    It is based upon what one or maybe two parts of the system have decided or agreed suits them-and therefore must be efficient.
    There are very simple issues-disclosure of evidence is late; listing of cases is in a mess.
    Only when the great and the good stop telling "the Defence Community" what is going to happen and only when the much needed reform is discussed with "the Defence Community" and agreed with us will real, meaningful and effective reform be achieved.
    To date much of that which is promoted as efficiency is in fact done in hope that efficiency will be achieved.
    Only when Government recognises that the CJS needs proper resources to deliver justice to victims of crime and to defendants will the problems with the CJS be sorted.
    It is, ultimately, a matter of resources and only when Judges, DPP etc state this in public will Government do anything about it.
    Until then we shall have half-baked "efficiency" reforms which are the closest thing to useless that you are ever likely to see-because there is no agreed vision of what "efficient" actually looks like.

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  • So much I could say but I will focus on just three points:

    1. "24% of CC cases collapsed on the first day". This speaks volumes for the lack of pre-trial preparation by the prosecution and the ineffectiveness PCMHs, PTPHs and FCMHs. If all of these were working properly the decision to not go ahead could and should be made early enough to stop the wasted time and costs of everyone arriving on the first day just to go away again.

    2. The spending on cases that don't go to trial is "CPS £21.5M" and "Defence Counsel £93.3m". It seems to me that if the CPS was allowed to spend a little more the 'wasted' defence costs could be significantly reduced.

    3. 'Experts still get paid .....' I have explored the whole question of Expert Fees in an article in the Solicitors Journal at http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/comment/expert-witnesses-are-not-getting-fair-deal-legal-aid I hope the NAO and LAA take notice.

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  • But, Richard, did you watch last night's programme on Panorama (8.30 BBC1) on police corruption? Chilling, truly chilling.

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