Area Assurance Inspection: CPS North West

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

Please note that paragraph 4.39 on page 44 was amended for clarity on 27 February, shortly after publication.

The overall results for HMCPSI’s Area inspection into CPS North West were encouraging. Although the new management team has faced some significant challenges, there are good foundations in place which are starting to deliver improvements.

Senior management demonstrated effective leadership and the staff Engagement score in the Civil Service People Survey 2017 has increased from the previous year, with a strong ‘one Area’ ethos, despite teams being spread over a number of locations.

Stand-out achievements included the management of resources. The Area has under spent against its allocated budget for the past four years and has an efficient system for ensuring financial controls, drawing an “Excellent” rating from inspectors. This extends to management of prosecution costs and Very High Cost Cases. The Area is careful in how it uses agents and makes good use of its Crown Advocates. Although the savings achieved have dropped over the past few years, at £71,966 per Crown Advocate, this is substantially above the national average of £63,193.

Senior managers have also worked hard to gain influence with criminal justice partners. This has resulted in a level of engagement which is having a positive impact on cross-agency working. They have also been proactive in their emphasis on continuous improvement. Good data quality assurance mechanisms are in place which flag weaknesses in performance. The Area has also produced a data performance pack to help drive up standards.

Although the level of convictions in both magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court has declined to 87.1% and 81.3% respectively, the rate is still higher than the national averages of 84.9% and 79.0% respectively. Conviction rates for rape and sexual offences have increased and the Area has generally maintained a higher rate than nationally, with the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases well above the national figure.

Witness care is often of a very high standard, particularly in serious or sensitive cases involving vulnerable witnesses, but there is scope to improve communication by staff to the Victim Liaison Unit when letters need to be sent, such as updating victims about the progress of their cases, or when contacting those who had been affected by domestic abuse.

A Learning, Development and Human Resource support officer has been appointed and a number of training initiatives launched, all of which are already having a positive impact. This has been in response to a poor Learning and Development rating in the Civil Service People Survey of 38%, compared with the national average of 53%.

There are also issues that require vigilance and ongoing attention. Sickness absence remains high. Although the number of working days lost due to sickness has come down since 2014-15, at 8.3 days it is still one of the worst nationally and short of the CPS ambition of 7.2 days or fewer. The approach to absence management needs to be reviewed.

The Area needs to drive a number of improvements before it is in a position to deliver high quality casework, in particular in relation to the timeliness and quality of reviews, the handling of unused material, ensuring there is good ‘grip’ on cases and that value is added to the casework. Inspectors found that lack of compliance was not challenged often enough.

In the magistrates’ courts, cases were not always prepared effectively in accordance with Transforming Summary Justice principles. Late or missing reviews compound the impact of poor police file quality and hinder the ability to progress cases at court properly.

In the Crown Court, the Better Case Management initiative is not completely embedded yet. The quality of police files has meant CPS staff were spending a disproportionate amount of time on routine administration tasks, rather than reviewing the evidence and formulating a strategy in a timely manner.

In a file sample only 39.7% of files submitted complied with the National File Standard and 12.7% did not comply at all. Inspectors found that lack of compliance was not challenged often enough.

It is accepted that the issues around police file quality make it more challenging for lawyers to comply with their obligations in relation to disclosure of unused material, but the Area still needs to improve its performance. It has drafted new guidance for lawyers and the police so that appropriate challenges take place. Overall disclosure duties were complied with in a timely manner in 64.5% of cases in the file sample.

Case progression was often hampered by large volumes of overnight custody cases coming through the courts and the late arrival of papers. This was a particular problem in the City of Manchester Magistrates’ Court, which suffers from a shortage of police cells and interview rooms.

Inspectors additionally called for

  • reviews in both magistrates’ courts and Crown Court cases to be timely, with a clear trial strategy and effective grip
  • communications with witnesses to be properly recorded and referred to prosecutors promptly, with effective action taken
  • lawyers to address the views and interests of victims and give clear instructions to advocates.

CPS North West has offices at Manchester, Preston, Carlisle and Barrow, and is aligned with Greater Manchester Police, the Lancashire Constabulary and the Cumbria Constabulary. It covers 15 magistrates’ courts and eight Crown Court centres. In the 12 months to June 2017 it had the full-time equivalent of 453 staff and the budget was £33,827,392.

Inspectors examined 150 files finalised between May and July 2017. A questionnaire was issued to all Area staff, members of the judiciary were interviewed – as were members of partner agencies and the CPS – and court observations undertaken.

CPS North West Area Assurance Inspection Report (Feb 18) (260 kB)