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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

'Overstretched' criminal justice system close to breaking point, say MPs

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'Overstretched' criminal justice system close to breaking point, say MPs

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Victims at mercy of a postcode lottery for access to justice according to PAC report

An 'overstretched' and 'bedevilled' criminal justice system is close to breaking point, MPs have said.

In a damning report analysing the efficiency in the criminal justice system (CJS), the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the current regime was 'not good enough' to support victims and witnesses and had failed to ensure timely access to justice.

Since 2010/11, government spending on the CJS had fallen 26 per cent while the number of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers had dropped 27 per cent since March 2010.

The report said the system is 'bedevilled by long standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies, and costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another,' it read.

It found that around two-thirds of Crown Court trials are delayed or do not go ahead at all with 51,830 cases still awaiting a hearing.

Victims and witnesses must wait 134 days between the case leaving the magistrates' court and the start of the Crown Court trial - compared to 99 days two years ago.

At court, one in five witnesses waited for four hours or more to give evidence. The failure to support witnesses effectively led to just 55 per cent saying they would be prepared to do so again.

A variation in performance in different areas of the country was also denounced as 'unacceptable'.

In the year to September 2015 victims of crime in North Wales had a seven in ten chance that a Crown Court trial would go ahead as scheduled, while Greater Manchester residents only had a two in ten chance.

Additionally, victims' waiting time, between an offence being committed and the conclusion of the case at the Crown Court, ranged from 243 days in Durham to 418 days in Sussex.

Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said 'critical failings in management from the top down' had placed the criminal justice system at risk.

'Too little thought has been given to the consequences of cutbacks with the result that the system's ability to deliver justice, together with its credibility in the eyes of the public, is under threat.

'The system is overstretched and disjointed. Victims of crime are entitled to justice yet they are at the mercy of a postcode lottery for access to that justice.'

The PAC report acknowledged that government reforms to improve the CJS are underway but expressed concerns that the full benefit will not be seen for another four years.

It said there were opportunities for the Ministry of Justice to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice.

'We will be holding the government to account on this,' said Hillier, 'and will expect it to provide details of its plans and progress in the months ahead.'

The Law Society's chief executive, Catherine Dixon, responded to the findings: 'Criminal justice is at the heart of a democratic society and underpins the rule of law. We are concerned that miscarriages of justice can occur in a system which is clearly not working as it should.

'We hope this report will prompt the government to take action to ensure that anyone accused of wrongdoing has access to justice.'

Mark Fenhalls QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association said: 'For years the criminal justice system has been held together by the professionalism and goodwill of judges, court staff and lawyers, but the supply of sticking plaster has run out.

'Despite the acute and chronic stress in the system there are some signs of hope. One key change is the digital revolution that has begun in the criminal courts. But there is much more to be done to make a "one nation" justice system that is fit for the 21st century and for all of us and not just the wealthy.'

Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, commented: 'Our criminal justice system is not working; it is close to breaking point. As the report points out, cost savings in one part of the system often cause inefficiencies and greater expense elsewhere.

'We are now seeing the very real consequences of the radical 26 per cent cut in spending on the criminal justice system since 2010/11. Justice is a fundamental cornerstone of a functioning democracy and it should be ring fenced from such cuts.

'Justice is a precious asset and we need to be prepared to continue to invest in it.'

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