The National Audit Office’s report on the system’s efficiency is an alarming read.
The National Audit Office’s report on the efficiency of the criminal justice system is littered with jaw-dropping statistics that lead the public spending watchdog to conclude the system is ‘not currently delivering value for money’.
It’s hard to decipher which figure is the most shocking.
In 2014-15 the Crown Prosecution Service spent £21.5m on preparing cases that were not heard in court (more on that later). The Legal Aid Agency spent £93.3m on defence counsel to represent defendants whose cases never went to trial (and this excludes guilty pleas).
Backlogs in the Crown court increased by 34% between March 2013 and September 2015. The waiting time for a Crown court hearing went up by more than a month.
If all of the 61,473 ‘either way’ cases heard in the Crown court in 2014-15 had been heard in the magistrates’ court instead, court running costs would have fallen by £45.1m. (The NAO points out that such cases can be referred to the Crown court for sentencing after the hearing if the sentencing falls outside the magistrates’ powers.)
I would love to know why a crime victim giving evidence has a seven in 10 chance that their case will go ahead in North Wales but only a two in 10 chance in Greater Manchester. And why a case in Durham takes 243 days to progress from offence to completion, compared with 418 days in Sussex.
But what struck me the most was neither a monetary figure nor percentage, but the NAO’s recommendation that the Criminal Justice Board, which oversees the system, agree what ‘good’ looks like as a whole.
The NAO says the lack of a common view on what success looks like means ‘organisations may not act in the best interests of the whole system’. As a result, ‘costs are shunted from part of the system to another’.
For instance, courts staff, under judicial direction, may schedule more trials than can be heard so that there are back-ups if a trial cannot proceed. However, this may lead to a witness waiting all day to give evidence for a trial that is not heard, which may ‘disengage’ them from the process.
Remember the £21.5m figure I mentioned earlier in relation to CPS spend on cases that weren’t heard in court? £5.5m was related to cases that collapsed for reasons including non-attendance of prosecution witnesses. (Of course the attendance rate might improve if fewer witnesses were left waiting around all day.)
And no wonder there is no common definition of ‘good’, given courts themselves have differing views on what constitutes a ‘good’ result. According to the report, some treat a cracked case as good because it spares the full cost of a trial and finishes the matter. Others focus on improving effectiveness and identifying cases that are likely to crack, resulting in lower cracked rates.
Worryingly, the NAO says there is ‘no agreement across the system about which approach is better’.
And where the NAO has spotted examples of good practice, it also found that awareness of such practices, from which others can learn from, varies.
At Birmingham Crown Court, for instance, police officers can make appointments to obtain search warrants from judges. Before, they had to come to court and wait for a judge to become available. The police estimate that this change will save the equivalent of two full-time police officer positions over a year.
No wonder there is no common definition of ‘good’, given courts themselves have differing views on what constitutes a ‘good’ result
Also worrying is the NAO’s conclusion that despite several cross-agency initiatives to tackle inefficiencies in the criminal justice system - Transforming Summary Justice, Better Case Management, Common Platform - the Ministry of Justice’s reforms won’t be successful unless all parties are given ‘incentives’ to follow the new ways of working.
‘Without an effective mechanism through which one part of the system can hold another to account for poor performance, it is not clear what incentives the reforms will provide for organisations to use the new systems as intended,’ the spending watchdog says.
The report will undoubtedly be uncomfortable reading for everyone involved in the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice Board certainly has its work cut out to show that the system can deliver value for money.
But none of this can be achieved without everyone pulling together in the same direction, which this report suggests isn’t quite happening.
As that annoying phrase goes, ‘there’s no i in team’.
Monidipa Fouzder is a Gazette reporter