The Law Society has called for major changes to police and prosecution practices to bring much-needed efficiency to the criminal justice system.
In its paper to the president of the Queen’s Bench Division’s review of criminal proceedings - commissioned against the background of legal aid cuts - the Society says a number of changes can be made to improve the system.
The Society said defence solicitors want measures to cut workloads and reduce the impact of fee cuts.
The paper identifies problem areas all the way from the police station to the Court of Appeal, with unresolved defects having a knock-on effect later in the criminal justice process.
Solicitors said that poor disclosure of information in police stations prevents explanations or admission in interviews. The interviews themselves are often ‘over lengthy’ and waste solicitors’ time.
The lack of accurate information for the defence is also likely to result in a not guilty plea and the defendant seeking a Crown court trial.
‘At present there is considerable distrust of the summaries of evidence provided by police officers, in particular with regard to summaries of the defendant’s interview,’ the Society added.
The response called for police to stop their tendency to ‘overcharge’ suspects and give greater opportunity for engagement between the prosecution and the defence at the pre-charge stage.
In the magistrates’ court, the Law Society identified a ‘lack of case ownership’ by the Crown Prosecution Service and delayed hearings because the case was ‘inadequately prepared’ by the police and CPS.
The response said defence practitioners throughout England and Wales reported problems with the lack of case ownership and morale within the CPS, caused not least by cuts to the funding of the service.
‘The experience of many of our members is that it is difficult, and in some areas impossible, for defence solicitors simply to communicate with a prosecutor, whether by phone or email,’ said the Society.
Many of the same issues inhibit the efficiency of summary proceedings in the Crown court, with the late service and poor quality of prosecution case papers causing problems for lawyers and witnesses.
The Society called for improved police training on appropriate arrests, interviews and the preparation of accurate case summaries.
The CPS should also review ways of operating to require prosecutors to be responsible for cases, with the quality and timeliness of the CPS service also improved, the Society said.
To speed up the process, preliminary hearings in the Crown court should be abolished and judges should actively manage contested cases, preferably outside court, to ensure they are trial ready.