An administrative error by the Crown Prosecution Service that led to the collapse of a trial has been cited by the parliamentary watchdog to highlight the cost of poor communication.
In its latest report on complaints about UK government departments and agencies, the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman said the increase in the relevance of communication as an issue of concern was particularly noticeable in complaints about the Ministry of Justice.
Case studies showed that the costs of poor communication when delivering a service could be severe, but avoidable, the ombudsman said.
In a case study headlined ‘CPS error led to collapse of trial’, the report states that Ms A, in spring 2013, was verbally threatened by a man known to her (Mr R) while she was at work. Ms A reported the matter to the police and Mr R was arrested. However, due to an administrative error, the CPS failed to tell Ms A about the court hearing.
The report states: ‘As a result, she did not attend and the CPS prosecutor offered no evidence, and the alleged offender was acquitted.
‘Ms A complained to us about what had happened and said the CPS had failed to meet its responsibilities to her as set out in the victims’ code.
‘She said she felt threatened by the alleged offender, particularly as he had been released. She said she had lost confidence in the justice system and felt she was in a worse place than if she had not reported the crime in the first place.’
Following the ombudsman’s investigation, the CPS paid Ms A £2,000 ‘in recognition of the injustice she had suffered’.
The ombudsman added: ‘Although we could not say what the outcome would have been if the hearing had gone ahead, we felt Ms A’s uncertainty about this was a significant injustice in itself.
‘We also found the CPS’s failure to meet its obligations under the code meant that Ms A had been let down by the system specifically designed to protect people in her position.’
A spokesperson for the CPS told the Gazette: ‘The CPS is committed to providing the best possible service to victims and witnesses, and mistakes such as this are extremely rare – the ombudsman considered four complaints last year from the 630,000 cases we prosecuted.
‘We have apologised to the victim in this case and given her a full explanation of what happened.
‘We have identified what went wrong and have taken robust preventative action that has been backed in an independent assessment.’
The MoJ accounted for nearly a third of the ombudsman’s 676 completed investigations in 2015-16. It upheld more than a third of complaints about the department.
The ombudsman stressed that it only saw a snapshot of the interactions between government departments and the public. But in a number of cases about the ministry, the ombudsman said the complainants ‘have had to put their lives on hold in order to try to resolve their complaint’.