Probation staff are poorly equipped to work effectively alongside criminal justice colleagues, the chief probation inspector reveals today.

Reporting on the findings of a thematic inspection, Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, said probation services in courts have significantly improved over the past year. However, 'despite government aspirations for criminal justice in a digital age', probation staff are 'poorly equipped and stand at a clear disadvantage'.

Under the government's Transforming Rehabilitation programme, in June 2014 probation services were divided into a public sector National Probation Service (NPS) and 21 privately owned community rehabilitation companies (CRCs). The NPS is responsible for advice and information provided to the courts.

Today's report states that NPS hardware and software 'are generally dated and lack functionality, inhibiting both efficiency and effectiveness... NPS operational staff did not have access to appropriate working tools and so were ill-equipped to function in a modernised, digital working environment. Very few had functioning laptops.'

'Consequently, access to digital stores (a cloud-based repository for criminal justice case documents for all court users) was restricted and cumbersome. We saw examples of equipment that was not fit for purpose. In one instance the laptops allocated for staff were stored away, as they lacked functionality.'

Inspectors did, however, see effective use of video-link technology. 

The chief inspector said it was 'heartening' to report that probation services in courts have noticeably improved over the past year. 'With challenging targets for speedy delivery of probation advice to courts (pre-sentence reports), advice is increasingly being given orally on the day, rather than in the traditional, more leisurely way, in full written reports,' she said.

'We found that oral reports consistently provided good advice to courts about what sentence to consider.' However, 'advice is sometimes given in short written reports, yet they are not of the same quality, and the NPS must consider why that is. As it is, we found judges and magistrates much less likely to follow sentencing advice in short written reports'.

Stacey credited the NPS for having good processes for getting information the court needs about the defendant's circumstances from local authorities and the police quickly, and competent and motivated staff in court daily. These enabled sentences to be passed swiftly and safely. However, the NPS does not assess the risk of an individual going on to cause serious harm, described as 'core probation work', well enough overall, Stacey warned.

Work observed in prosecuting the enforcement of community orders was 'very good'. But 'we heard again that judges and magistrates fear CRCs are lax in returning cases to court, undermining their confidence in community sentences', Stacey said.

The inspectorate will review enforcement in more detail soon, as part of a thematic inspection.