The number of Crown Prosecution Service lawyers has fallen by more than a fifth in recent years, MPs have said in a damning report, criticising the Ministry of Justice for being ‘too slow’ to recognise when the criminal justice system has been under stress.

The Law Society said the public accounts committee’s report, published today, confirmed its ‘grave concerns’ about the system.

The committee says the ministry has been ‘too slow to recognise where the system is under stress, and to take action to deal with it’.

Its report states that central government spending on the 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’.

The number of CPS lawyers has fallen by 27% since March 2010. The committee was concerned to hear that the CPS ‘struggles to find counsel to prosecute cases, as the criminal bar has reduced in size’.

The committee says: ‘The ministry did not response 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.’

HM Courts and Tribunals Service ‘does not yet have a credible plan for securing value for money from its estate’, the committee says. ‘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.’

The committee says it was ‘surprised’ to hear that HMCTS ‘has continued to spend limited resources on courts which are now being closed’. For instance, £600,000 was spent on Torquay Magistrates’ Court over the last six years, including a ‘recent’ £100,000 investment on new windows. 

The court is one of those earmaked for closure in the government's wide-reaching plan.

The committee says: ‘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.’

The committee also reports that:

  • The system is bedevilled by longstanding poor performance including delays and inefficiencies, and that costs are shunted from one part of the system to another;
  • The system is not good enough at supporting victims and witnesses;
  • Timely access to justice is too dependent on where victims and witnesses live;
  • The full benefits of the ‘welcome’ reform programme will not be seen for another four years; and
  • Plans to devolve greater responsibility for criminal justice are unclear. Devolution might present opportunities to improve local cooperation, but could also risk adding more complexity to an already fragmented system.

The MoJ welcomed the report and said it would ‘reflect’ on the recommendations.

A spokesperson for the ministry said: ‘The justice secretary has been clear that our criminal justice system needs urgent reform. That is why we have embarked on comprehensive measures to improve our prisons and courts, backed by over £2bn of investment, to build a swifter, more certain justice system.’

Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said the viability of criminal legal aid services across England and Wales was under ‘serious threat’ and it was concerned that miscarriages of justice could occur in a system ‘which is clearly not working as it should’.

Dixon added: ‘We are committed, as are the dedicated practitioners who work in criminal justice, to work to improve the system in the public interest.

‘However, it is critical that everyone who is accused of wrongdoing has access to expert legal advice irrespective of their wealth and background, and therefore we will keep calling [on] government to ensure that legal advice is available to those accused of wrongdoing.’

The Criminal Bar Association described the 26% spending cut on the system since 2010-11 as ‘brutal’ and ‘counterproductive’.

CBA chair Mark Fenhalls QC (pictured) said: ‘For years the criminal justice system has been held together by the professionalism and goodwill of judges, court staff and lawyers, but the supply of sticking plasters has run out.’

But he said that despite the ‘acute and chronic stress’ in the system, there were ‘some signs of hope’, such as the digital ‘revolution’ that has begun in the criminal courts.

Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said the report validated ‘what lawyers have been telling the government for years’. The offer to work alongside the government ‘to try to improve the system without further cuts’ still stands, Gascoyne said.

Greg Foxsmith, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said ‘proper’ investment was now needed to provide justice for victims of crime together with protection for those wrongly accused.