Expenditure on the Crown Prosecution Service has been reduced significantly from £672 million per annum in 2009-10 to £487 million in 2015. That is a massive cut of £185 million a year. At the same time, the number of cases brought to magistrates’ courts is down from approximately 641,000 to 539,000. Since 2010, some £83 million has been spent on redundancies, with £20 million of that spent on only 153 staff, or upwards of £131,000 per senior member of staff.
The effect has been significant: there is a staggering 23 per cent increase in vacated trials – cases that are due to go to trial but, probably on the day of trial at Crown court, are vacated for whatever reason. The reason is often that the CPS is not prepared or ready.
Excluding guilty pleas, conviction rates in magistrates’ courts and Crown courts are significantly down, despite the headline figure of an 80 per cent conviction rate. The conviction rate in magistrates’ courts is about 50 per cent, and in Crown courts it is about 25 per cent, excluding guilty pleas. Since 2010, CPS staff numbers have fallen by a whopping 2,400. The CPS is suffering a brain drain and haemorrhaging experienced in-house lawyers, who leave for independent practice, or simply take the money and run.
The stress levels at the CPS are seriously high. A 2012 survey by the LawCare charity of the law profession revealed that more than 50 per cent of the legal profession generally felt stressed, and that 19 per cent were suffering from clinical depression, with more than one fifth of the profession suffering from mostly avoidable and preventable mental ill health. Stress at the CPS must be off the scale, particularly considering a recent Law Society survey in which 95 per cent of respondents said that they were stressed at work. Furthermore, in May 2016 the PAC inquiry found that: “The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.”
According to the National Audit Office report of March last year, the number of cases outstanding in Crown courts had increased by 34 per cent since 2013, and the waiting time for a Crown court case to be heard had increased from an average of 99 days to 134 days – an increase of about 35 per cent.
In 2014-15, the CPS spent £21.5 million preparing cases that were not heard. What has happened to those cases and the £21.5 million? It costs just shy of £1,000 to prepare a case for Crown court the CPS says that being trial-ready costs it about £1,000 – and £21.5 million has been spent on preparing cases that got nowhere. One must assume that the evidential test had been passed, and that the CPS reviewing lawyer had determined that there was enough evidence—that is, on balance, more evidence than not, and a more than 50 per cent chance of a successful prosecution—and that it was in the public interest to prosecute that case. Twenty-five million pounds was spent on preparing cases that went nowhere.
We must have some thought and regard for the victims in the cases, who will be anxious for the case to make progress and to have their opportunity to give evidence for the prosecution, and desperate to find out what happens in the trial. The victims suffer the most from all that.
Prior to being elected an MP, I practised as a junior. I was the one who prosecuted for the CPS. Before my next day in the magistrates’ court, if I was lucky my clerk would give me a big, black CPS bag containing files for the next morning. I would go home and prepare 10, 12 or 15 files for trial. It would often take me through the night. I would go into the courtroom the following morning to find that witnesses were not there, police officers were not available, shift patterns had changed all of a sudden, reviewing lawyers were unavailable, and the caseworkers who were available on the end of the telephone were not in a position to make any decisions. The defence, who were keen to crack the case and put it to bed, might offer me a section 5 public order offence, rather than the section 4 offence that had been charged. I would read the file and think that whoever had authorised the section 4 charge had been optimistic, to say the least, and would want to drop it in preference for a section 5 charge, which would be easy enough to get home and get a conviction for, but no lawyer would be available for me to speak to.
Things were bad enough then, but they are getting worse. Some 38.4 per cent of cases are not reviewed before they first come before the magistrates’ court, meaning that if the prosecuting lawyer has been really lucky, they open their file and they have witnesses ready, they have interviewed them individually, have checked that what the police say in their statement is what they are about to give as evidence and is correct, and are ready to crack on. But then they find things are not quite right. The charge is probably not correct, in truth. Whoever reviewed it has probably not done so very well, or things have been kept from the reviewing lawyer that are particularly important to their charging decision. The fact that 38 per cent of cases are not reviewed means that when a prosecuting lawyer goes in to prepare cases for trial, nearly half of them will not even have been reviewed by a CPS lawyer. They have one arm very definitely tied behind their back.
It would not be right for me to name people, but this is from an experienced CPS prosecutor of 30 years’ call: “CPS hesitate to instruct QCs to prosecute even murders. Very serious, high publicity, or multiple murders will get a Silk prosecuting; otherwise not.”
Another lawyer emailed me to say: “The problem is not just money, it is doctrine, dogma and management double speak. I get six cases to prosecute in the magistrates at 4pm the afternoon before the case is due to be aired in court. Each of those cases will be defended by a separate lawyer who only has that one case to deal with. The hearing record sheets are not there, and all sorts of things are missing from the files. It is utterly chaotic.”
Karl Turner is Shadow Solicitor-General. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.