Criminal justice system near breaking point, MPs warn

Prison officer in a prison

The criminal justice system in England and Wales is failing victims and witnesses and is close to "breaking point", MPs have warned.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the system was "bedevilled by long-standing poor performance, including delays and inefficiencies".

The committee's report also warned that cutbacks were affecting the ability of courts to deliver justice.

The Ministry of Justice said it would "reflect on the recommendations".

'Damning statistics'

The PAC found that about two-thirds of trials in crown courts were delayed or did not go ahead at all.

There was a backlog of 51,830 cases awaiting a hearing as of September last year, it said, with an average 134-day wait between cases leaving magistrates' courts and the start of crown court proceedings.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The number of Crown Prosecution Service lawyers has dropped by 27% since 2010

This was up from a 99-day average wait two years ago.

Only 55% of witnesses said they would be willing to be witnesses again, with 20% being made to wait four hours or more to give evidence in court.

PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier 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."


By Clive Coleman, BBC legal correspondent

Without the goodwill and co-operation of victims and witnesses, the criminal justice system simply cannot operate.

So it is alarming to find that just 55% of those who have been a witness would be prepared to be one again. That indicates a negative experience for many witnesses. Giving evidence in a criminal case is unlikely to be a stress-free and wholly positive experience. The witness is thrust into an adversarial system, the rules of which are understood by all of the professionals involved, but not by the witness.

Being cross-examined by a barrister using leading questions designed to put the witness in a position in which he or she has to agree with propositions, is difficult and unsettling.

It is not surprising many would not care to repeat the experience, but 45% negative feedback is a real worry and indicates that many witnesses are not being properly supported.

The other striking thing about the report is that it recognises that the criminal justice system is a large, organic entity made up of many interlocking agencies.

It has suffered a 26% cut in the last five years.

Those cuts have been made in one part of the system without proper consideration of the knock-on costs and negative effects on other parts of the system.

This is a cross-party group of MPs looking at the system as a whole and saying that enough is enough.

The committee also warned that people faced a postcode lottery in accessing justice.

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

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

Figures also showed that government spending on the criminal justice system had fallen by 26%, while the number of Crown Prosecution Service lawyers had dropped by 27%, since 2010.

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

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

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 £2bn of investment, to build a swifter, more certain justice system."

One abandoned trial

By Danny Shaw, BBC home affairs correspondent

The trial at Hove Crown Court was well into its fifth week. The six defendants were accused of a plot to supply Class A drugs. However, midway through defence evidence for one of the alleged conspirators, the lead prosecutor, who was pregnant, went into premature labour.

Her "junior" prosecuting partner was ready to step in - that's what's supposed to happen. But the trial, which began in April, was already over-running badly and most of the jurors said they couldn't continue beyond the scheduled timescale, so the judge decided to abandon it.

The Court Service blamed a "variety" of problems for the delays, including extended legal argument, a shortage of dock officers, jurors being ill, jurors arriving late as a result of rail strikes and lawyers requesting time to examine additional evidence which had been delivered late.

Some of the issues were clearly unavoidable. Others perhaps not. However, the result is that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been wasted in legal fees, courtroom costs and police time.

And the six defendants, some of whom are in custody, their families and witnesses will have to wait eight more months until there's a retrial.

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