Thursday, November 08, 2012

Pressure When It Is Needed

It's no secret that the CPS, which is losing resources as fast as the courts' service, is struggling at the moment. Recent inspections have reported serious problems with many CPS areas, and every magistrate is familiar with missing files, unwarned witnesses and similar foul-ups that can bring a trial to a halt. My guess is that the CPS is now understaffed to a sufficient extent to have a serious effect on its ability to do its job. Tesco runs a vast logistic operation across the country, and seems to get perishable goods to its stores at the proper time. The CPS frequently fails to get an A4 folder of papers the few miles from its office to the correct court.

A couple of weeks ago we were due to commit an either-way case to the Crown Court. Two previous attempts had failed, and our colleagues had adjourned the medium-serious case each time, no doubt grumbling at the Crown Prosecutor. Another embarrassed application to adjourn was made  because, of all things, many of the statements in the file were unsigned and not, therefore, legally valid, suggesting that the checking process had been sloppy and perfunctory.

I gave the prosecutor a hard time, and he told us that the OIC (officer in the case) was attempting to find the signed originals. I decided to play hardball. "We hope and expect that he will find them and bring them straight to court. If they are not here by xx o'clock, we shall invite the parties to address us on our option to discharge the matter."

The CPS don't like that, because although they have the option to start again, someone will have to explain to the boss what has gone wrong.

The papers and the OIC arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, so we committed the case, and set a date for the first Crown Court hearing.

Do you think that could have happened without the threat to discharge the case?

No, nor do I. 

33 comments:

  1. Robert the Biker9 November 2012 08:35

    Surely if a case is discharged that's the same as saying' not guilty'. Or do the CPS get to keep on dragging things out and going back for more bites of the cherry until the poor defendant has died of old age. Talk about the process becoming the punishment!

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  2. Wrong on both counts, I'm afraid.

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  3. Discharge does not equal not guilty. CPS could recommence proceedings but trying to get too many bites at the cherry is abuse of process.

    Wasn't STOP DELAYING JUSTICE the edict for 2012?

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  4. Not so long ago a court found itself at the start of the morning's proceedings with 5 half-day trials listed. Perhaps that reflected someone's view that only 20% of cases would be trial ready.

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  5. Playing hard ball was the right thing to do. It's only when individuals in the CPS, police etc. become personally involved that word will start to filter back (up) that the courts are not simply going to roll over each time. I fear though that not all bench chairs will be willing to take such a robust approach.

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  6. At our local court they are squeezing in 2 or 3 trials in an afternoon, clearly they can't realistically hear them all - so wasted witness time. Also from speaking to an LA the trials listing has slipped considerably as they struggle to find LA's to cover courts.

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  7. Living Death in the Buying Department9 November 2012 11:33

    Ah yes, the triple booking of trials... I know I'm going to have a wasted day when I turn up to hear that I'm in a trial court. You might well triple book the court, because I appear to have the touch of death with these things - the trials never goes ahead when I'm sitting.

    I had thought it was just me, but perhaps I shouldn't feel so bad - it's happening everywhere.

    Is there someone, somewhere who is proud to say they are happy that this mess appeared on their watch?

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  8. It is all "going to hell in a handcart" in my court too. I echo the original posting about CPS failings and the need to take a robust approach to threaten to throw out cases where cock-up follows cock-up and indeed I do (frequently) but do we not have also to consider the victims? The victims of assaults, thefts, criminal damage etc rely on us to make sure they too get justice and if we dismiss their case too readily because of administrative failings they will lose (even more) faith in the criminal justice system - and not unreasonably.

    The truth is CPS is only marginally short of being "not fit for purpose". I do not blame the CPS staff who appear in our courts - they do the best they can with what they have got - but the local managers in the organisation have been forced (by the top management of CPS - under Ministerial pressure no-doubt) to cut, cut and cut again. Nothing will improve while the "budget first" approach is given higher priority than the "pursuit of justice". It may well be that CPS is less efficient than we might like (I'm not qualified to judge) but at the end of the day if CPS resources are continually and repeatedly reduced the current situation is inevitable and will only get worse. Rant over!

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    1. A fine rant it was too.

      I can only echo the sentiments. Failure to disclose in time; failure to warn witnesses; failure to get the paperwork to court; and of course failure to provide a proper prosecutor with proper powers (as opposed to an agent who has to keep calling for instructions).

      The last few months, the CPS has practically fallen apart at the seams in our Courts. And who are the ones who suffer? Not the bureaucrats, not the CPS management and not the politicians who signed off on this utter farce.

      No, it's the victims, the defendants and the witnesses. In short, the public.

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    2. Let's be clear. The cuts lie behind this. The government has wished this chaos on the courts for merely ideological reasons.

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    3. Let's be clear. The cuts lie behind this. The government has wished this chaos on the courts for merely ideological reasons.

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    4. Let's be clear. The cuts lie behind this. The government has wished this chaos on the courts for merely ideological reasons.

      Delete
  9. I did discharge a case yesterday. Fairly low level either way offence and first committal hearing. The prosecutor said something on the lines of 'I would not be suprised if your worships were considering to discharge this case and I would not be able to argue against this.'

    I did, however, warn the defendant that this does mean that the CPS may follow up and have this case brought again.

    He was content for the time being.

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    1. The problem being, it may be a fairly low level offence to the police and courts, but to the victim, it is probably far from being a low level offence - even a simple smashed of wing mirror is a big deal to the aggrieved as it means time and expense, both of which, not many of us have now-a-days.

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  10. You still have to wait for signed pieces of paper?

    Would it not be better to have a paperless system? Files "transferred" in seconds, fully authorised and authenticated?

    Pipedream, I know....

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  11. Bowstreetrunner9 November 2012 13:37

    At one time prosecutors( that's the real ones) had a discretion, could make decision, and get on with things, today they generally do not. Even in the most straightforward case they are terrified of taking a decision about anything for fear of being bollocked by their manager who probably has not set foot in court for ages.
    Put this with prosecuting some ridiculous stuff just because you can is bringing the system into disrepute. Lord Shawcross said ( paraphrasing)just because an offence has been committed doesn't necessarily mean it should be prosecuted.

    Given that the number of cases has dropped one wonders why things are not more efficient- the truth is the police are arrsting and moving forward on innueno and rumore and the CPS are prosecuting on the most optomistic basis rather than the realistic.

    You put this with a near hysterical presss who are alleging that there is a pervet round every coner and your right justice is on its way to hell in a handcart.

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  12. That is disappointing to hear BS. The whole CJS has become some bureaucratic, cumbersome and inefficient, the CPS is just one (although probably the worst) example.

    The only people who benefit from the current shambles are criminals and lawyers. (or are they one and the same? Ouch!)

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  13. Legally_blonde9 November 2012 14:44

    It is utterly disheartening to read posts like this. I and my colleagues are frequently the ones in court apologising for the latest problem and facing the wrath of angry defence solicitors and even angrier Magistrates. It is embarassing and although the bench make it clear it's not personal, it feels as though it is. I pride myself in what I do but feel powerless to change things. Instead of criticising us, maybe making some suggestions to help would improve things.

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    1. I have a HUGE amount of sympathy for your position. My colleagues and I (usually) take great care to make it clear that we are not criticising the CPS Prosecutors and Associate Prosecutors who appear before us but the system/processes and/or management that have cut staff to below the minimum needed to do the job properly.

      I was a Civil Servant for over 20 years and so saw the effects of "boom and bust" public sector funding close-up and personal. At the end of the day, there are limits as to what can be done with the available staff. What is missing IMHO is sufficient qualified CPS staff who are given the time to do their jobs properly - that is to say scrutinise files and make appropriate decisions. Most mistakes seem to be due to pressure from management hell-bent on "throughput" and hitting their budget targets - perhaps to secure their personal annual bonuses.

      As to a solution - mine costs £££ so it is not going to happen in the current climate but FWIW it is "bums on seats" and certainly not shiny new in-court IT!

      If as a CPS member of staff you feel demoralised and demotivated - then welcome to the Club. In more than 20 years on the Bench I (and I believe a large proportion of my colleagues) have never felt so negatively about the quality and performance of the Courts system.

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  14. Thats right, blame it on cuts, never incompetence. I guess everything in the CPS was rosy before May 2010....

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    1. Well the CPS has not suddenly become less competent : that would be a daft assumption.

      So yes; it's probably the cuts.

      By the way, Legally_blonde, I understand your position. Fact is that the prosecutor is almost always a hapless victim as well. But that's not the point : there are very real victims suffering here.

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    2. Or possibly the CPS has always been incompetent, but used to have sufficient staff to paper over the cracks, and now the cracks are on display.

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  15. The question is - what has caused this situation? Is it staff cutbacks, more procedures resulting in extra paperwork, changes to working practices so it takes longer to process the case, or aspects unknown to this layman? Or maybe the staff have just lost motivation.

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    1. Probably "all of the above" and, no all wasn't rosy in the CPS/CJS-garden before May 2010 but it has got MASSIVELY worse since then - just ask ANYONE working in the CJS (or perhaps find someone who can demonstrate that this assertion is wrong!).

      Whilst it is unarguable that there is insufficient money about to run all of the public services effectively now, cutting resources from one that is so obviously failing can only make things worse.

      Where cuts are made all depends on your priorities - and I don't pretend to have the answers (that's well above MY paygrade) - but in a society that claims to be founded on firm principles of law, order and justice, the CJS seems a pretty poor place to start.

      When will things improve? Only when something truly horrendous happens (God-forbid) and Ministers are given no option but to accept blame and produce a (probably knee-jerk) response. Sorry to be so cynical - it's been a heavy week!

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  16. Or perhaps there are simply too few of them

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  17. About 10 years ago the Cps was about the size it has slimmed down to. Then things got done reasonably well, not perfect but adequate. Then all the bureacratic changes came about and hit hit the wall. The answer has to be simplification and giving the power back to those at the sharp end

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  18. There is a universal conviction in the upper strata of every organisation, public or private, that inefficiency is rife lower down (Never in the CEO's office, of course), and that it is simply a matter of insisting that subordinates, get their collective fingers out, cut out time and cost wasting, and do an improved job with smaller resources.
    It is firmly believed; it is still wrong.

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  19. Legally Blonde - I commiserate, but I can't let that dictate events on the day. "A court near me" recently had a late special measures application to which the defence objected (this was the day of the trial). It was a domestic violence cases between siblings, so the parties were, in any event well known to one another. The mags listened to the reasons the CPS was late and it all came down to cuts and oversight. We refused so the trial collapsed as the witness was not willing to remain in court. No application fr summons for hostile witness, so alleged perpetrator free to offend/reoffend. This is the only way the CPS senior management will get to understand that to bring a cse like this takes lots of people lots of steps - someone has to complain, someone attend the incident, someone investigate, someone arrest someone charge, someone put a file together, someone to get it listed and so on and so on. All for nothing if the trial is dismissed for lack of evidence on the day. A shambles at the taxpayer and victim's expense.

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    1. Rex - this kind of thing is also jolly irritating for the OIC, who has done the vast majority of the work in putting the case together. No doubt police are to blame for some of the muck ups, but it's very trying to deliver a perfectly good case file together with the other bits 'n' bobs now demanded, only to find that the CPS loses 80% of the material, denies ever receiving any of it and then accepts discharge of the case...grrr!

      My rant over too. I know and like most of my local prosecutors, and acknowledge that they are often merely victims of their office's xanthum gum approach to bureaucracy, but still...

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    2. Sorry - xanthAN gum, I meant of course...curse those polysaccharide spelling demons.

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  20. Expect fewer resources over the next decades! This is a DEPRESSION!

    Magistrates are ideally placed to use their discretion.

    Start using your power?

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    1. The Oracle at Delphi was easier to understand.

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