Area Assurance Inspection: CPS Mersey-Cheshire

HMCPSI’s Area Assurance Programme report into CPS Mersey-Cheshire.

Against a backdrop of change and uncertainty CPS Mersey-Cheshire has earned an encouraging appraisal from inspectors in the latest Area report, which identified a number of strengths. This completes the current cycle of Area Assurance Programme inspections that began in 2016, with just London North and South remaining. Mersey-Cheshire’s efforts to foster effective working relationships with partners has led to improvements and it outperforms national averages in many aspects of its work, including domestic abuse conviction rates and securing successful outcomes in both the magistrates’ court and Crown Court.

The Area garnered most praise for its management of resources, which was judged to be excellent. Budget systems are sound, with regular and robust financial checks in place. The Area provides value for money in terms of the cost per prosecution, while also delivering good outcomes in both the magistrates’ court and Crown Court units. Good use is made of in-house advocates in both the magistrates and Crown Court.

There are also good examples of where a focus on performance has resulted in improvement. The prosecutor leading on hate crime has been proactive in engaging with community groups and stakeholders, providing an alternative informal forum for scrutiny. Mersey-Cheshire has raised disability hate crime conviction rates from 86.7% in 2014-15 to 91.4%, while overall hate crime conviction rates have also continued to improve since 2014. Its rate of 87.4% is well above the CPS level of ambition of 85.0% and one of the best in the country.

The needs of victims and witnesses are generally well considered and addressed, including collaborating with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to reduce the trial backlog at Chester Crown Court, which was having an adverse effect on both victims and witnesses. But there are quality and timeliness issues with letters sent under the Victim Communication and Liaison scheme, with some letters in the inspection sample falling below the required standard. In general, the Area uses feedback from a number of sources robustly to improve service delivery.

The Area is effective at preparing magistrates’ court cases in accordance with Transforming Summary Justice (TSJ) principles for first hearings, however, there is a lack of ‘grip’ thereafter to progress cases to ensure trials are effective. The proportion of magistrates’ court cracked and ineffective trials compares well with the national average (17.2% versus 22.2% respectively), but there is still room for improvement with case progression, which has seen the effective trial rate decline slightly over the past year and, at 46.1%, is below the national average of 47.1%. The quality of pre-charge decisions also fell below the expected standards.

Successful outcomes were secured in 88.0% of magistrates’ courts cases last year, significantly higher than the national average of 84.9%. The same trend can be seen in the overall domestic abuse conviction rates, 81.8% compared to the national average of 76.6%.

Although managers hold regular team meetings with staff to discuss performance, inspectors felt that Mersey-Cheshire should address shortcomings in training and quality assessment. They recommend:

  • the Area needs to focus on creating a more effective and clearly delineated training programme for staff
  • adequate training needs to be given to lawyers on case analysis and strategy to improve the quality of charging decisions
  • it must take steps to ensure staff are notified when an Individual Quality Assessment has been recorded and that face to face feedback is given in a timely manner.

In spite of its many strengths, Mersey-Cheshire was let down by a worrying decline in Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) convictions. The rate in 2014-15 was 65.4%, declining to 57.3% in 2016-17, and has dropped further still to 54.6% in the 12 months to September 2017. This is in contrast to the improving performance nationally from 56.1% in 2014-15 to 57.7% to September 2017. The Chief Crown Prosecutor has commissioned a number of initiatives to address this, such as increasing the unit headcount and a joint approach to dealing with backlogs, which are beginning to show some signs of improvement. The Area is also planning to set up a RASSO ‘triage’ system to raise standards.

Following the joint HMCPSI/Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report into disclosure of unused material, the CPS has worked across both police forces to roll out improved processes for dealing with this, including action plans and regular monitoring. Further improvements are still needed in this respect, which the Area recognises.

CPS Mersey-Cheshire has its office in Liverpool, with a small number of lawyers co-located with a specialised police team at Cheshire Police Headquarters. It is aligned with Merseyside and Cheshire Police forces and covers eight magistrates’ courts and two Crown Court centres. In the year to September 2017 it had 201 staff and its budget was £15,243,771.

Inspectors examined 120 magistrates’ court and Crown Court files finalised between July and September 2017. The fieldwork took place in January 2018 and involved interviews with the judiciary, partner agencies and CPS staff, as well as court observations.

CPS Mersey-Cheshire Area Assurance Inspection Report (Apr 18) (235 kB)