Trials failing due to increased basic administrative errors in courts

The Old Bailey in London, one of the country’s crown courts. (Image: Old Bailey via Shutterstock.com)

Crown courts in England and Wales are registering a rise in the number of trials failing because of basic administrative errors.

Cases over-running, judges being unavailable, over-listing trials and failures with equipment or accommodation are increasingly leading to trials being halted and costly delays.

The number of crown court cases labelled ‘ineffective’ due to an administrative problem rose by a third between 2009 and 2012, according to the Bureau’s analysis of government statistics.

Last year 1210 crown court trials fell through because of issues to do with court administration.

There are other reasons why trials are declared ineffective and re-started, for eaxmple the defence or prosecution not being ready, or if a judge or juror is absent. While these figures have stayed relatively stable, the number of trials failing because of problems with administration, such as equipment or room bookings, has risen.

In 2009, before the Spending Review budget cuts took hold, 912 cases, or 18.5% of ineffective trials were due to administration issues. Now that those same problems account for 23% of all recorded ineffectual trials.

The figures are rising. In the first quarter of 2013 the same amount of trials were declared ineffective specifically because of equipment and/or problems with court rooms, as in all of 2012. This is equivalent to a trial falling apart because of such basic problems once a week.

Courts have been hit hard by budget restraints and last year the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the umbrella body covering the day-to-day running of courts, reduced its net operating costs by £141m, 9% of the previous year’s spending.

[pullquote]Last year 1210 crown court trials fell through because of issues to do with court administration, this accounted for 23% of all the ineffectual trials.[/pullquote]

The overall number of trials completed in the crown courts has dropped by 10% compared to previous years, from 153,898 in 2010 to 138,808 in 2012, ending a decade of rising number of cases heard in court. The fall in cases is in part reflective of a drop in crime.

But HMCTS has lost 4,333 people, or 19% of its workforce since 2011, when the organisation was formed through a merger of the courts and tribunals services, and the cuts, are being blamed for the increase in errors by some working in the area.

Kevin Greenway has worked in the courts system for forty years and is a spokesperson for PCS, one of the unions that represent the staff working in courts. He said, ”The system is creaking and risks falling apart… It is true that justice delayed is justice denied and these cuts could have dangerous and unforeseen consequences. Court staff face massive problems every minute of every day alongside colleagues in the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Offender Management Service, and Probation. Despite the cuts, staff at all levels battle to get the job done alongside a judiciary which is also deeply concerned for the public interest.’

When a trial is labelled ineffective it is rescheduled for a future date, a process which has cost implications.

It costs around £1700 a day to run a trial in a crown court. If each of the administratively ineffective trials registered in 2012 failed on its first day, more than £2m would have been wasted. If any of these trials went on for more than a day before being scrapped, this cost would be greater.

The Ministry of Justice rejected the Bureau’s approximation of costs and said it does not publish data on how much has been spent on trials which later fell through.

Where things go wrong

With a decreased workforce and a reduced budget some courts are now struggling to keep things running smoothly.

Leicester crown court is one of the busier courts in the country. It dealt with 2,165 trials last year. In the same period 53 trials fell through due to administration errors, the equivalent of one in every 41 trials.

Chichester combined court deals with a relatively small number of cases – 352 trials last year. But it had a much greater number – one in every 23 trials, failing due to basic errors.

In Luton crown court the number of trials that fell through for administrative reasons nearly quadrupled, from 8 to 31 between 2011 and 2012. Inner London court dropped 45 trials for administration reasons in 2012, an increase of 50% on its 2011 figures.

Speaking to the BBC in April retired Judge Peter Jacobs, who had worked in Norwich Crown Court, explained he had ‘genuine concerns’ within the courts service of how they would cope under the current funding levels.

‘If you cut more frontline staff you simply won’t have enough people to do all the tasks – there are just limits to this,’ he said.

In 2012 43% of all the ineffective trials in Norwich crown court, where Judge Jacobs presided, were due to administrative errors.

[pullquote]It costs around £1700 a day to run a trial in a crown court. If each of the administratively ineffective trials registered in 2012 failed on its first day, more than £2m would have been wasted. [/pullquote]

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:

‘The Government is committed to ensuring that we continue to provide court and tribunal users with effective access to justice while seeking ways to do so at a lower cost and alongside our efforts to improve the efficiency of the justice system as a whole.

‘The Criminal Justice System Strategy and Action Plan, published last month, set out plans to increase the effectiveness and transparency of the courts. These include digitising the criminal justice system, transforming it from a fragmented paper-based system to a digital service which meets the standards the public rightly expect from a modern public service.’

Magistrates Courts 

The effect of budget cuts on the smooth running of courts extends to the lower magistrates courts too. There administration problems accounted for 23% of ineffective trials in 2009 and 29% in 2012.

On average it costs £800 to run a trial in a magistrates court. With 8434 trials failing due to administrative errors last year, that could be a cost of up to £6.7m to the tax-payer.

Richard Monkhouse, deputy chairman of the Magistrates Association noted that cuts to staff were leaving some courts struggling to keep up.

‘Case management workers, employed by the courts, are fewer in number so there are things that are not happening,’ he told the Bureau. ‘For example it used to be that you would have a record of all the defendant’s previous fines and their record of paying, now you don’t have that and you’re hampered in decision making,’ he explained.

Closing courts

The pressure on courts is being exacerbated by the closure of crown courts around England and Wales – another part of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) money-saving plans.

In 2010 the government undertook a consultation on court estate reform before announcing it would close 93 magistrates courts and 49 county courts.

An FOI to the MoJ revealed that to date 136 of those courts have been closed but only 35 buildings have been sold, meaning 101 court buildings are empty. Twenty of those are under offer or have had contracts exchanged.

According to the MoJ over £21m has been saved by closing these courts and so far £14.5m gained from the sale of buildings.

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The cost of downsizing

The MoJ budget has been slashed in recent years. The department has reduced its workforce by 16% compared to the pre-2010 Spending Review figures.

It has cost an average exit package cost of around £40,000 per person lost.

The MoJ spent £133.8m on staff redundancies in 2011/12 and £97m in 2012/2013, more than the predicted £60m they had ring-fenced for exits. The department has put aside another £40m for further redundancies in 2013/2014.

With such dramatic cuts to budget and staffing numbers the MoJ explained in 2010 that it would need to work differently.

In the MoJ’s Spending Review 2010 document on Workforce Impact, as seen by the Bureau, the department explains to its staff that they would need to keep people out of the court system and reduce the numbers of those held in custody. The document states:

‘we will have to make changes to and start focusing on diverting people from courts and we will have to review, consult on and then implement changes to sentencing in order for the volume effects- fewer people using courts, fewer offenders in custody- to reduce demands on different parts of the justice system.’

At the time the MoJ had announced that changes would be made to reduce prison population, but had suggested this would come through alternate sanctions.

One way to relieve pressure on the court system is for the police and CPS to use out-of-court disposal methods such as cautions and on-the-spot fines.

However out of court disposals have also been dropping in the past years, they were used to treat 7.8% of cases in 2011 and 7.2% in 2012.

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A version of this was published in The Observer on 27 July 2013. It was also published on http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com

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