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CPS ‘has work to do’ on criminal case reform, says inspectorate

HMCPSI finds over one third of case files are not reviewed before a first hearing

22 February 2016

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An initiative to alleviate the stress suffered by victims and witnesses in criminal cases is being positively executed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), despite some continued failings, a new report has found.

An HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) report published today has revealed that CPS staff are supporting the aims of the Transforming Summary Justice (TSJ) initiative.

The report highlighted areas for concern, however, including the CPS's 'disappointing' failure to review the prosecution file in over a third of cases before a first hearing.

This increased to 69 per cent of cases when prosecutors anticipated a guilty plea. By contrast, some 23 per cent of case files were not reviewed when the CPS anticipated a not guilty plea.

The inspectorate also highlighted a need for the CPS to work more effective with the police to improve the quality of the prosecution's file.

Senior inspectorate and CPS members warned that work still needs to be done to if the expected benefits of the initiative are to be achieved.

TSJ aims to reform the way criminal cases are handled in the magistrates' courts while also streamlining the system to reduce delays and hearings to the benefit of victims and witnesses.

The CPS has already started implementing a component of TSJ by introducing courts for guilty pleas only, which allow cases to be dealt with more efficiently.

The HMCPSI found a strong commitment by the CPS to achieve the TSJ objectives, with good legal training and strong governance arrangements already in place.

Under the initiative, a CPS lawyer must review each case and ensure any work needed to improve a case is completed before the first hearing.

Inspectors found 81 per cent of first hearings were effective with prosecutors primed to make decisions. Prosecution files were also found to be substantially digitised so prosecutors could present their cases without paper copies.

The chief inspector of HMCPSI, Kevin McGinty, urged for greater focus ahead of a defining period for the reforms.

'Our inspection found that the CPS engagement with this initiative was positive, but it is essential that the focus is maintained and momentum is not lost. The initiative has to be given time to bring about a real culture change, which cannot happen overnight,' he said.

'It is too early to say if the initiative is leading to the level of improvement hoped for, as this will depend not only on an increase in the timeliness and numbers of guilty pleas but on a reduction in the numbers of trials and an increase in their effectiveness.

'It will be several months before this can be realistically and accurately judged.'

Barry Hughes, the chief crown prosecutor, added: 'Whilst the report is encouraging, we are committed to further improving how the system works, alongside the police and court service.

'We are already taking action on many of the report's recommendations and will continue to work to ensure victims and witnesses do not face unnecessary delays and hearings, and to increase overall efficiency in the magistrates' court.'

Inspectors observed 19 magistrates' courts sittings and assessed 271 files from four CPS areas across England and Wales. A follow-up inspection is planned within the next 12 months.

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