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Challenge and opportunity - DPP's address to the London Justices' Clerks' Society

11/03/2011

I have been asked to tell you a little bit about what the CPS is doing to save money and promote efficiency in light of the Spending Review.

Let me start by giving you a glimpse of the future.

A prosecutor comes into your court carrying only a laptop. She opens the laptop and begins to prosecute the list. No papers are passed up to the Bench; nor to the defence: both have already received all relevant material electronically and are working from their own computers. At the end of the session, the results are sent electronically back from court to the CPS office, the Witness Care Unit and the police immediately after completion of the case.

Fantasy? Far-fetched? Possibility?

In my view - the latter.

Last week a CPS prosecutor prosecuted a guilty plea case at Winchester Crown Court from a laptop - with the Judge also working from a laptop. The sky did not fall in.

This afternoon I had a peek at the virtual file they were using. It contained the basic details of the offence and the defendant, the indictment, the prosecution summary, relevant extracts from the sentencing guideline, eight witness statements and the exhibits, which included digital photographs of the victim's mouth, extracts from the victim's hospital notes, a letter from the defendant to the victim and the record of interview.

The Judge now wants to press on and conduct a trial from a laptop in the next few weeks!

And later this month, we will begin more extended testing of this way of prosecuting in the Community Justice Centre in Liverpool.

In Dyfed Powys, one of our prosecutors is regularly prosecuting cases in the magistrates' court from a laptop, and advanced information is now being served on the court electronically.

In Merseyside the electronic file will shortly become the primary file within the CPS office for CJSSS cases.

We are also beginning to make our Witness Care Units paperless. This will enable us to operate with fewer units, improve efficiency and maintain this valuable service. Our Central Fraud Group in Manchester is well on the way to digitalizing all their cases. It is our intention that service of all material by disc should become the norm.

These are but examples of digital working in action.

Not fantasy. Not far-fetched. Possible.

So much so that we, the CPS, are committed to making our primary work environment digital by April 2012. Thirteen months time.

In the intervening period, we will be working hard with partner agencies, including you, to broaden the application of digital working across all aspects of the CJS.

We have been encouraged by the response of partners so far. Last month, for example, the CPS and the Law Society issued a joint statement encouraging solicitors to embrace digital working as a way of improving the effectiveness of criminal cases.

This is how the statement was covered in the Law Society Gazette (and I quote):

"The Law Society has called on criminal law firms to embrace electronic working, as the Crown Prosecution Services seeks to become completely digital by April 2012.

"Both bodies want to see more firms sign up to use secure email, to enable information to be shared between prosecutors and defence lawyers quickly and safely, and to increase efficiency within the criminal justice system.

"In future, [the CPS] aims to routinely use email to serve prosecution papers and evidence on the defence lawyers in magistrates' court cases, which could enable some problems to be resolved electronically and reduce the number of court hearings."

The path has been set.

It is high time for the electronic case file and electronic case management systems to become the main currency in the criminal justice system. In my view, this is one of the most important transformational developments that we have within our grasp. Let me add some more detail to my glimpse of the future.

Within the list that morning in your court are two guilty pleas. These cases have not come before the court before and they are disposed of that day. That being possible because the CPS had served case papers electronically on the defence representatives in good time before the hearing, a guilty plea had been indicated early, the Probation Service alerted and a pre-sentence report prepared and - of course - served on the court electronically.

That detail is, I accept, further removed from day to day reality in courts not only in London but across England and Wales.

That is not because no progress has been made. It has.

Cross agency work such as the introduction of CJSSS and the Streamlined Process has brought many benefits, including a reduction in the number of hearings in most magistrates' courts.

So let us consider where we have got to. Let me start with guilty pleas. The latest CPS figures indicate that the guilty plea rate in the magistrates' court in the twelve months to January 2011 was 68 per cent: and in the Crown Court 72 per cent. Those percentages reflect a long term trend and I do not think it is about to change.

 

We need to stand back and consider those figures. The primary function of our criminal courts is, in reality, sentencing, not trials. And that requires us to take a fresh look at how best to conduct business there.

Since the Spending Review requires the CPS to make savings of 24 per cent over four years - a real challenge - let me put the argument in stark economic terms. The average cost to the CPS to prepare a case for guilty plea in the magistrates' court is around £160. The average cost to prepare a trial is around £850. And, of course, there is the time factor: it takes a good deal longer to prepare a case for trial than it does to prepare a case for a plea.

Whether and when a defendant enters a guilty plea makes a material difference.

Yet we still have a problem. In the 12 months to December 2010, 181,160 cases were listed for trial in the magistrates' courts. 69,414 of them 'cracked' (i.e. the defendant changed his or her plea from not guilty to guilty either on the day of trial, or shortly before). That's 38 per cent of all the cases that had been listed for trial. And that, on a rough calculation of the average plea and trial preparation costs, translates to around £48m in CPS wasted costs alone. The costs to your courts and to the police need to be added to that figure. As does the 'cost' to the system in frustrating and disappointing victims and witnesses who have turned up to court - often anxious and nervous - only to be told to go home again.

In the same twelve month period, 43,238 cases were listed for trial in the Crown Courts. 18,379 of them 'cracked'. That's 42.5 per cent of all the cases that had been listed for trial. The average cost to prepare a case for guilty plea in the crown court is around £1,500 and the average cost to prepare a trial is around £3,500. So, using the same rough calculation, 'cracked' trials in the crown court translate to around £37m in CPS wasted costs alone. Again the costs to your courts and to the police need to be added to that figure - and the 'cost' to victims and witnesses.

The question, then, is whether we can get from where we are now, to my glimpse of the future - and, if so, how quickly.

For me the answers are 'yes' and 'quite quickly'.

Before I develop those answers, let me be clear about one fundamental matter.

We have a duty to deal firmly with criminal conduct in the most effective and efficient way. And in a way that is transparent so that the public understand why decisions are taken. We must respect and protect the rights of victims and witnesses. But we also have a duty to respect and protect the rights of suspects and defendants, particularly their fair trial rights. No 'improvements' in effectiveness or efficiency can come at a price that compromises these rights.

Returning then to the question of whether it is possible to get from where we are now to a more efficient way of dealing with guilty pleas, as many of you may know the Senior Presiding Judge is leading a project designed to produce effective and prompt disposals for guilty pleas. The scheme - which is currently in its pilot phase in Reading, Winchester and Bristol - aims to identify appropriate cases at an early stage, separate these cases into bespoke Early Guilty Plea Courts and expedite the plea and sentence, thereby producing a just, expeditious and cost effective outcome. The rights of the defence are respected because they can pull out of the scheme at any point.

These pilots are based on a scheme which has been running in Merseyside since April 2009. Both in Liverpool and elsewhere these Early Guilty Plea schemes are demonstrating increasing numbers of early pleas and that a good proportion of those pleas can, in fact, be disposed of at first hearing.

So, in my view, there is no reason why guilty plea cases cannot be dealt with at their first hearing and without compromising the right to a fair trial. What is required is better preparation. The first court appearance should be the end of the preparation process and dialogue between the parties, not the beginning, as is often the case at the moment.

That leads me on to a related question. How do we control what comes into our courts?

Let me start with charging.

The CPS has been working hard with the police to improve the quality of cases we receive from them. Today we provide timely and quality advice by telephone through our Daytime Direct Service and, where appropriate, offer face-to-face and written advice for more complex matters. Joint delivery standards have been developed and we have worked collaboratively in the development of appropriately trained police Evidence Review Officers.

Under these Daytime Direct arrangements, calls from police officers are routed to local CPS Area Prosecutors for charging decisions in those volume crime cases that must be referred to the CPS.

Across London, 79 per cent of calls made by police officers wanting charging advice to CPS London Daytime Direct are answered within 3 minutes with an average consultation length of just over one hour. That is a considerable stride forward for the delivery of an effective and efficient criminal justice service in London.

That leads me to another important control on cases coming into the system: the proportionate use of Out of Court Disposals to filter out cases that do not need to go to court.

Whilst I appreciate the concerns some may have over diversion from court, my own view is that Out of Court disposals for low level, low risk and usually first time offenders make sense, satisfy the needs of justice and ensure that court time is freed up for more serious and complicated cases.

That said, I favour a coherent, supervised and transparent scheme for out of court disposals.

At the moment, different disposals are available to different agencies for different offences - and that can create problems.

Some of those problems can easily be resolved. I have issued guidelines that make it clear that a conditional caution is only available for low level offences - so, for example, it is not available for any offence of violence other than common assault, it is not available for burglary, knife crime, domestic violence or rape.

And there is no reason why a scheme for out of court disposals cannot be transparent. Every quarter, we publish monthly figures on our website, setting out how many conditional cautions have been issued, for what offences and indicating the number of cases where conditions have not been met.

Currently, we are looking to create a clearer and more coherent national framework for the deployment of Out of Court Disposals. The recent Ministry of Justice Green Paper: Breaking the Cycle sets out the need for such a framework and I look forward to seeing the Government's response to its content in due course.

Finally on the question of controlling what comes into our criminal courts, let me touch on road traffic cases.

In my view it is time to take a fresh look at uncontested, lower-end, summary road traffic offences. Let me be clear, I am not talking about cases where disqualification or custody are possible disposals. The court will always be the appropriate forum for deciding such matters.

But I do wonder, in cases where the offender pleads guilty to a minor matter by post and is content for the case to be dealt with in his absence, whether it is not over-burdensome to convene a full court of three magistrates to adjudicate, a court Legal Advisor to advise and, possibly, a prosecutor to be on hand in case he or she is required?

After all, summary traffic cases have always been regarded as somewhat of a hybrid: there are extensive Out of Court Disposals available to deal with such offences - for example, Fixed Penalty Notices and Vehicle Defect Rectification Schemes - and it may be for that reason that the more traditional criminal justice Out of Court Disposals, such as simple cautions and Conditional Cautions, are not applied in such cases.

Whatever the right solution, I have no doubt that more could be done to improve the way we handle these cases and to increase efficiency at the same time.

These are just some examples of work currently underway and our ideas for improving efficiency and effectiveness and reduce costs by looking at what we currently do and improving it. The challenges ahead are clear.

The Spending Review for the CPS and other CJS agencies requires us to re-examine our approach to the delivery of justice. We need to stand back and consider if we have got things right, and if we haven't, we need to change things, quickly.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Our response must be clear, coherent and consistent. And it is essential that we work closely together, at all levels, so that we can all live within our Spending Review settlements, by acting smartly and co-operatively.

The Justices' Clerks' Society is, I know, committed to improving the quality of justice in our criminal courts. You have extensive knowledge and experience and share many of our objectives.

To that end, I look forward to working with you in future and thank you again for inviting me to join you and to address you this evening.

Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions