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Crown Prosecution Service (Court Proceedings)

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

2. What recent assessment he has made of the reliability and punctuality of the Crown Prosecution Service in court proceedings. (163819)

I am surprised by the Minister’s answer because last year the CPS failed to comply with nearly half the court orders on time—at great expense to the public purse. Just what do Ministers intend to do about this so that justice delayed is not justice denied?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. Hot off the press today, we have had the annual report of Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which looked at this issue and concluded that compliance with court directions was improving, as was monitoring. Looking at the overall picture, which is what the hon. Lady’s question was about, there are 800,000 cases a year—

I have answered the question, which is that there has been an improvement in compliance. I would like to point out, if I may, that conviction rates are at 86% and that with ineffective cases the Crown Prosecution Service is not ready only in 1.5% to 2% of cases.

I declare an interest as a defence solicitor, but I mention the interest of taxpayers and justice, too. How can we hold the Crown Prosecution Service to account when it fails during a criminal justice case that is in process, particularly given the lack of wasted costs orders applying to legal aid cases?

As my hon. Friend will know, there are measures in place, such as the right of review and complaints system, which allow complaints to be made. More generally, it is worth looking at the annual report of the HMCPSI, which concludes that against a background of reducing costs there has been an improvement in almost all areas.

It is not just a case of turning up to court on time; it is a case of processing cases quickly. I wrote to the Attorney-General yesterday about a young woman who was killed exactly a year ago—Elena Fanaru—and it took the CPS a year to bring the person responsible to court. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot accept that that is a good deal for the victim, as it causes additional stress to victims’ families and others concerned in these cases.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to take up the case with my right hon. and learned Friend and he knows that the matter will be looked at carefully. On a day such as today, however, when the HMCPSI annual report has just come out showing progress in all areas, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, although we often rightly talk about individual cases in this place, there are high levels of convictions and very good results on punctuality overall. We are also seeing overall decision making on charging improving, assessment of case work quality improving, compliance with Crown court directions improving and the processes of dealing with disclosure—an extremely difficult issue—improving. Hon. Members are right to take up these issues.

I think the Crown Prosecution Service does a good job, especially in Northamptonshire, but I was surprised to receive a written response from the Solicitor-General, saying that the CPS

“does not maintain a central record of the number of times an application to remand a defendant in prison has been refused.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 11W.]

I think the public would like to know that information and I think the CPS would find it useful; we could then see where the problem lies—with the CPS or with the courts.

The CPS, of course, keeps quite a range of different management information, but that is not one of them. I am certainly happy to consider whether it would be possible, but against the background that we do not want to clog up the system with a lot of over-reporting and regulatory concerns at a time when we are reducing costs.

I am concerned about the Solicitor-General’s complacency on this issue, particularly in the light of what has happened in the last three weeks. Crown court judges across the country, from Bristol to Warwick and from Warwick to Croydon, have said publicly what all those working in the criminal justice system have been saying privately for some time—that the CPS is dogged by delays and disorganisation, that trials are being put at risk and that there is a danger that people charged with very serious offences such as murder and rape will walk away scot-free. I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions about this, and I would ask the Solicitor-General to acknowledge these problems and tell us exactly what it is that he is going to do about them.

The hon. Lady has written a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, citing three cases out of 800,000—and they are not what they seem. For example, in one case, the advocate for the prosecution fell ill at court; the judge was not aware of that and made some comments about the way in which the case was being conducted, but at the time—

It was indeed a serious case, but when that advocate fell ill, he was replaced by another, and a conviction followed.

I do not think that picking three instances, all of which involve special circumstances, is the right way of dealing with this. The HMCPSI report examined 2,800 cases, reviewing the files in detail, and they presented a promising picture.