CPS response to Area Inspection Programme, CPS Wessex Baseline Report 12 April 2022
Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) have today issued a report following their inspection of CPS Wessex.
We welcome the HMCPSI report of the Area. The Inspectors have set out fairly the context, and caseload and resourcing pressures that the Area was dealing with at the time of the inspection. The acknowledgement of the hard work of all in the Area and the joint working with criminal justice agencies is welcomed, as is the recognition that the Area has a sound understanding of the aspects of casework which need to be improved and the wider strategy issues. The Inspectors noted that as the unique pressures of the pandemic ease, and recruitment increases to the necessary levels, the Area should be in a good position to build on the aspects which currently meet the casework quality standards, and to improve the quality of casework right across the business. We welcomed the Inspectors noting the Area’s positive approach to celebrating positive contributions of staff, enhancing their engagement.
In respect of added value and grip, the Inspectors found that the Area demonstrated a sound application of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, selected the most appropriate charges and that the right defendants were correctly prosecuted for the correct offences. The Inspectors also found that there was a level of grip in the Area’s casework where processes clearly work well, and timeliness was found to be positive. Inspectors said that the Area adds value by exercising good quality decision-making around disclosure of unused material, particularly in the Crown Court and rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) where disclosure handling is identified as strong. Added value was demonstrated at sentencing with the prosecution generally seeking the right orders to protect victims, witnesses, and the public. It was also highlighted that acceptability of pleas was handled well.
There were aspects of strength for the Area in respect of the service provided to victims and witnesses post-charge. These included the timely and appropriate warning of witnesses across all casework examined. Timeliness of pre-charge decision making was good, as was the management of court directions and witness care unit correspondence.
Inspectorates’ Issues to address
There are 4 issues to address
1. There is a requirement to improve the quality of reviews at both the pre-charge and post-charge stages. Area reviews often lacked a clear analysis and strategy in setting out how the prosecution would seek to put its case.
CPS Response: There is a comprehensive plan in place to focus on the quality of pre-charge advice across the Area. The plans aretailored to the requirements of each team and recognise the varying experience levels in different parts of the Area. We are focusing on the content of pre-charge advices and the requirement for them to focus on the analysis of each element of the case, strengths, and weaknesses and how the case will be taken forward with clear instructions to court advocates. We will provide support and training to prosecutors to improve the consideration of victim and witness requirements pre-charge, including special measures and ancillary orders, ensuring that relevant information is obtained from the police in a timely manner. The Area’s focused approach to improving the quality of pre-charge advice will include in the magistrates’ court to ensure bad character applications are made as appropriate.
We will also ensure that lawyers work with investigators to identify all reasonable lines of enquiry through our action plans. Area managers will oversee this work and coach staff. We will also focus on improving the consistency of post charge reviews.
2. There is a need for improved and effective preparation for the first hearing, including addressing acceptability of pleas and instructions to the prosecuting advocate.
CPS Response: We will reinforce the guidance for providing instructions for prosecuting advocates, including consistent completion of PET forms in the magistrates’ court and PTPH forms in the Crown Court. This will be monitored through focused IQA and dip sampling of the defence engagement logs and assessing the quality of instructions provided to advocates as part of an ongoing review of advocate briefs.
3. Compliance with disclosure obligations in magistrates’ court cases is an aspect where the Area needs to improve.
CPS Response: Disclosure continues to be an important theme for us and is connected to the issues raised around case strategy and grip. We have appointed disclosure champions in the magistrates’ court teams, to work in partnership with the Area Disclosure lead and the Police. Disclosure workshops will take place to focus on specific issues including reasonable lines of enquiry and appropriate handling of schedules. The focused work on improving disclosure in the magistrates’ court teams will continue as new lawyers join. This will be supplemented using the new IQA tool to assess compliance with disclosure obligations. RASSO and Crown Court cases show strength in many aspects of disclosure work, but there is some room to improve initial disclosure and the area will undertake a discrete piece of work to improve this.
4. Improvement is needed in respect of the timeliness and quality of victim communication letters and there is room for improvement in how victim and witness issues are considered and dealt with at pre charge stage.
CPS Response: The Area accepts that although demonstrating much good practice with respect to victims and witnesses, there is room for improvement in the quality and timeliness of victim communications. Our escalation policy has been relaunched and additional checks on finalised cases introduced, and the Area has introduced a weekly dip sample process of letter quality by line managers to ensure continuous improvement.
The Area has also appointed legal SPOCs on each unit to work collaboratively with the VLU providing feedback on quality and timeliness. This is supported by daily checks to ensure peer review and drive-up quality. The findings from the peer reviews are fed into the weekly assurance report provided to the senior management team and feedback is given to the victim liaison officers.
The Area has also established a Bi-monthly forum where an independent panel consisting of both operational delivery and legal staff is invited to review a selection of anonymised victim communication letters to assess the quality of letters sent. The findings are then fed back to the legal managers for them to drive improvements in their team.
The Area understands that working with police early at pre-charge stage to obtain relevant information for special measures applications, ancillary orders and obtaining VPS will also enhance our service to victims and witnesses. Area managers will oversee this work and coach staff to make the necessary improvements.
The CPS recognises the importance of getting our communications with victims right. The quality of our communications is a key priority, and we are conducting a three-phase programme of work in order make improvements.
In the first phase we examined and completed actions which we could take in the shorter term to improve our communication. This included new template letters which help to set clear standards for our communication. The new templates became available to prosecutors in December 2021. We have also set up a new area leads network which provides a forum to identify and share local best practice and pilot new methods of victim communication.
In the second phase of the programme, we have conducted bespoke user needs research to better understand the needs and preferences of victims in their communications with the CPS. The research considered the methods of communication, the timing of communications and how we can best communicate the reasons for our prosecution decisions to victims. The purpose of this research is to provide a solid evidence base for an overhaul of our current victim communication and liaison scheme. This research has now been completed with high level findings to be shared in due course.
In phase 3 of our programme of work we will design and implement a new victim communication scheme. This work will be informed by the research produced during phase 2. This will ensure that the needs of victims will be at the heart of our new communication scheme. Later this year, we will engage with stakeholders on the back of the research and start Phase 3 to design improved approaches.
Chief Crown Prosecutor