A lack of focus on youth cases has affected the quality of casework, Crown Prosecution Service inspectors have said in a critical report out today.

Publishing the findings of its review on how the CPS handles serious youth crime, HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate said the prosecuting body must make youth work a nationwide priority.

Inspectors examined 20 youth court cases from each of the 14 CPS areas and chose files with allegations serious enough to be sent to the Crown court had they been alleged against an adult.

Youth policy and guidance was not complied with in a quarter of cases. The guidance sets out key considerations for prosecutors when deciding whether to prosecute youths. There was full compliance in 38% of cases. Compliance was worse post-charge.

Major decisions on youth cases are taken by youth offender specialists who are required to complete an in-house youth offender training course, which used to be three days but is now just a single day. Many of the prosecutors inspectors spoke to dealing with youth casework had not taken the course. Some prosecutors had done the course several years ago but the report says ‘law and practice in this area of criminal justice evolve quickly, so there is a risk that some prosecutors’ knowledge is less relevant or out of date’.

Youth courts are specialist tribunals designed to meet the specific needs of children. However, in one in eight cases the charging lawyer did not address the question of venue sufficiently or at all.

Inspectors identified weaknesses in the handling of unused material as a ‘significant contributor’ to a lack of proper preparation and less effective first hearings. Of 79 cases that fell below the expected standard at initial disclosure, 20 had no initial disclosure, nine had erroneous decisions about whether items should be disclosed, and eight failed to identify reasonable lines of enquiry.

More positively, in a ‘small number’ of areas inspectors said there was a clear focus on youth work. Prosecutors and managers were committed to better casework, strong leaders were driving strategy and there was a ‘real appetite’ to improve performance. ‘The CPS needs to ensure that this drive and enthusiasm is replicated nationally,’ the report says. Citing an example of ‘good practice’, inspectors said some areas have developed and delivered local training to fill gaps in national training provision.

Chief inspector Kevin McGinty said: ‘Given the reduction in resources that the CPS has faced in recent years, it has had to make some difficult decisions about where it focuses its attention. This inspection shows that serious youth casework has suffered as a result but that the CPS is now addressing this gap.

‘The CPS needs to ensure that youth work is prioritised nationwide and that it learns from the CPS areas which do this well through strong leadership and ongoing training.’

A CPS spokesperson said: 'How we handle young people in the criminal justice system is particularly important and the CPS is committed to delivering justice fairly and swiftly. We welcome the findings that note the high standard of our decision-making in youth justice with some beacons of excellence and strong leadership.

'We have accepted all of the report’s recommendations and have strengthened many of the areas since the inspectors arrived in order to continue to make progress.'