Crown Prosecution Service inspectors have highlighted the impact of court listing challenges on efficiency in the justice system after looking for the first time at the use of external solicitors and barristers in magistrates' courts.
Lawyers not directly employed by the CPS prosecute about one quarter of magistrates' court cases. External advocates cannot make certain case decisions, such as amending charges or discontuing a case, and cannot access CPS case management systems.
In a report published today, HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate said these agents play a vital advocacy role for the CPS, enabling 100% coverage of magistrates' court sessions. However, inspectors said the CPS's approach is cost effective only if court listings and trials are effective.
The report states: 'During our court observations, we were able to see the impact of listing challenges. For two agents at court on a specific day, one agent had four trials listed in their court and a further agent had no trials listed. This had occurred as a result of a two-day trial not progressing to the second day for the empty court. Trials were moved to the empty court, but this didn't happen until 10am on the day of the trial hearings. This meant that one agent had unnecessarily prepared four trials, and the other agent had to prepare on the day at court.'
Inspectors said effective systems to assess quality and competence were essential. However, they found 'very little assessment' carried out on performance. The CPS has systems to carry out advocacy assessments on its own staff in magistrates' courts. Inspectors said the CPS needed to clarify its position on how agents should be assessed. It recommended a national register of approved agents.
Agents are paid on a daily rate. Rates were increased in 2019 following a CPS review. Agents are paid £150 for a half-day session and £300 for a full day. Trial rates at the time of the inspection were £230, £240 and £250 per day, depending on the esimated trial length - these have since been increased by £100. Youth court fees are £200 for half a day and £400 for the whole day. In some CPS areas, inspectors found that the top rate was paid automatically due to the CPS wanting to ensure sufficient quality resources or making sure they had enough agents to cover courts.
Commenting on the report, a CPS spokesperson said: “Advocates at court are central to the work of the CPS and agent prosecutors play a vital role in delivering justice. We welcome the Inspectorate’s attention and their positive finding that our approach to using agents is sensible and cost-effective. We are taking action to address the recommendations made in the report, and will develop clear guidance to make sure that all our areas have the tools they need to use agents as effectively as possible.'