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'Rapid and significant' criminal justice system improvements sought for victims

Published 27/05/2016

Around two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court were delayed or did not go ahead at all, according to the committee
Around two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court were delayed or did not go ahead at all, according to the committee

Victims and witnesses are being failed by a criminal justice system "close to breaking point", a report by an influential committee of MPs has revealed.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the system was "bedevilled by long-standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies" while cutbacks were affecting courts' ability to deliver justice.

Around two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court were delayed or did not go ahead at all, the committee said.

A backlog of 51,830 cases was awaiting a crown court hearing as of September last year and t he committee found the system was "not good enough" in supporting victims and witnesses.

Just 55% of witnesses have said they would be prepared to do so again with one in five made to wait four hours or more to give evidence in court.

Victims were also waiting longer for their day in court and faced a postcode lottery in access to justice, the committee found.

An average 134-day wait between the case leaving the magistrates' court and the start of the crown court hearing was up from a 99 day average wait two years ago.

Victims of crime in North Wales had a seven in 10 chance that their crown court trial would go ahead but only a two in 10 chance in Greater Manchester, official data showed.

The length of time victims were forced to wait between an offence being committed and the conclusion of their case ranged from 243 days in Durham and 418 days in Sussex.

Examples of victims being sent conflating information on the same case by different parts of the system were also found.

The government spends around £2 billion a year on the criminal justice system, which in the year to September 2015 saw 1.7 million cases dealt with through the courts.

But government spending on the criminal justice system had fallen by 26% and the number of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers had dropped 27% since 2010, figures show.

The committee warned that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had "exhausted the scope to cut costs without pushing the system beyond breaking point".

It also found the CPS was struggling to find counsel to prosecute cases as a result of legal aid cuts.

The committee recommended both the MoJ and CPS gained a better understanding of the consequences before cutting available resources.

Meg Hillier, PAC chairwoman, said: "These are damning statistics.

"An effective criminal justice system is a cornerstone of civil society but ours is 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.

"Our report paints a stark picture of the human cost of critical failings in management from the top down.

"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 justice."

The committee recommended "rapid and significant" improvements in service to victims and witnesses.

One suggestion was giving the Victims' Commissioner the option of becoming a full-time member of the Criminal Justice Board.

Another was creating a timetabled plan to share good practice nationally to bring worst performing areas up to an agreed minimum standard.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The Justice Secretary has been clear that our criminal justice system needs urgent reform.

"That is why we have embarked on comprehensive measures to improve our prisons and courts, backed by over £2 billion of investment, to build a swifter, more certain justice system.

"Our plans will bring modern technology into our courts to better meet the needs of everyone who uses our services, and will replace ageing and ineffective prisons with new buildings designed to support rehabilitation.

"We welcome this report and will reflect on the recommendations."

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