Area Assurance Inspection: CPS North East

HMCPSI’s Area Assurance Programme report into CPS North East.

CPS North East has offices in Newcastle and Middlesbrough and is aligned with Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria police forces. It covers ten magistrates’ courts and three Crown Court centres. In the 12 months to March 2017 it had the full-time equivalent of 247.1 staff and a budget of £18 million.

CPS North East has recently undergone a complete change of senior management team and introduced a new management structure. There have previously been issues with staff engagement and, while there have been improvements, a number of these remain. Staff commented senior managers were not sufficiently visible, there was a lack of understanding about Area priorities and an attempt to create a ‘One Team’ approach had had limited success. Although there had been a genuine commitment to communicate with staff, inspectors nonetheless felt senior managers would do well to develop a more robust communication policy which set out a local and national vision.

However, they applauded the effective engagement with criminal justice partners at strategic level which had resulted in a number of improvements, such as a commitment from Northumbria Police to place an officer in the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences unit to help improve police file quality. The Area also worked with all North East police forces to deliver joint training on disclosure and community groups report that the CPS is responsive and supportive.

The Area performed strongly in financial management and it operates consistently within budget. Its financial planning is good and the Area has saved money by deploying its Crown Advocates effectively.

There has been substantial improvement in some aspects of performance, namely the timeliness of letters to victims and witnesses. 88.7% of letters in this category were sent on time compared with 76.9% the previous year, making North East one of the better performers when compared with the national average of 81.4%. There are also positive aspects to how the Area engages with community groups by using scrutiny panels for a range of subjects, and training given to prosecutors has also helped improve awareness around subjects such as transgender issues.

CPS North East is let down by inconsistent quality checks. It has a quarterly performance review and compares police performance with national averages and has a monthly Area Operational Board meeting, but there is little evidence that the latter analyses performance to any extent. Nor is casework quality assurance consistently applied to identify aspects for improvement or good practice.

The latter is of particular concern with regard to the high number of cracked and ineffective trials in the Crown Court and unsuccessful outcomes due to victim and witness issues in both the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts, where the Area lags behind national performance. The effective trial rate in the magistrates’ courts was only 39.7% compared with 47.0% nationally and in the Crown Court the figures were 35.0% against a national average of 50.7%. In some Crown Court cases pre-charge advice from counsel fell short of the required standard and it was noted that aspects of the disclosure process must improve, particularly the accuracy and completeness of record sheets.

Although inspectors did note positive aspects with respect to training, it was felt that the quality of the police file needs improving. Late or missing initial reviews also exacerbate the problem. Inspectors concluded much needs to be done to improve both magistrates’ court and Crown Court casework. A casework quality group has recently been set up but it is too early to say whether this is beginning to have any impact.

Inspectors examined 120 magistrates and Crown Court files finalised between January and March 2017. Fieldwork involved discussions with members of the judiciary, representatives of partner agencies and CPS staff.

CPS North East Area Assurance Inspection report (236 kB)