Area Assurance Inspection: CPS South East

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

The results of the latest Area report into the effectiveness of CPS South East were mixed. Although it has made some progress in staff engagement and there is a track record of quarterly improvement, there are a number of measures that are still consistently worse than the national average.

South East has recently undergone a significant change to its senior management team and, at the time of the inspection in November 2017, had just introduced a new management structure. Senior managers have been able to increase staff engagement from 40% in 2013 to 63% last year, which is commendable. There is, however, a need to strengthen the ‘one Area’ approach. Although managers have been tackling this issue, inspectors found that more needed to be done.

The Area has seen improvements in aspects of its sensitive and rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) work. Although the conviction rate for offences of rape is still below the CPS level of ambition, it has seen a steady rise from 50.3% to 54.6% in the 12 months to June 2017, compared to the national average of 57.9% to 58.5%.

The Area has also engaged effectively with local media to increase coverage of hate crimes. The stories and radio interviews not only had impact with their content, but raised the profile of all forms of hate crime.

But the Area has had mixed success with regard to wider conviction rates. While the magistrates’ courts have seen consistent improvement to levels now better than the national average, the Crown Court has seen little change and remains worse than average. In both courts inspectors identified significant weaknesses in case reviews and the quality and management of casework. It was found that initial disclosure was only dealt with correctly by prosecutors in 38.3% of Crown Court cases.

Although the Area holds regular meetings with criminal justice system partners and other stakeholders there is an ongoing inability to influence all police partners, which is having a serious impact on the quality of casework and the service provided to victims and witnesses. Although discussions at the top level are taking place, there are no signs of improvement and in the case of Kent, police file quality is actually getting worse. This is of real concern.

Inspectors note that there are issues around the police complying with their disclosure requirements, which makes it more difficult for lawyers to fulfil their own obligations. The police complied with disclosure fully in only 25 out of 60 Crown Court cases (41.7%) and there were substantial differences between the three police forces, with Kent being fully compliant in just over half its cases, Sussex in 40% and Surrey just over a third.

An issue raised by the police was that they did not get guidance on what was required of them following receipt of the defence statement, which was identified as an issue across the CPS in a previous report. Although the Area has provided disclosure training there is still need for considerable improvement. In one case there was a complete failure to disclose undermining or assisting material to the defence.

Although the Area employs quality assurance checks and dip sampling, these are not being consistently applied to identify areas for improvement or good practice. The Area acknowledges this and inspectors believe it is a missed opportunity to raise standards.

There has been some good learning from the experiences of victims shared across the Area, but more work is needed to improve communications and relationships with the witness care units. Police file quality deficiencies are having an impact on the Area’s ability to meet the needs of victims and witnesses. The Area also needs to improve its interaction with the Victim Liaison Unit and set up an effective quality assurance system to feed back issues and learning.

Financially there is a mixed record. The lack of a permanent Area Finance Manager (AFM) until recently has implications for financial control and assurance, which has not been rigorous or consistent. The Area has now secured an AFM and there are already better reporting methods, as well as monitoring and compliance checks.

CPS South East has offices at Canterbury, Brighton, Guildford, Middlesbrough and Newcastle. The latter two are referred to as the South East Team in the North East (SETINE). The Area is aligned with Kent, Surrey and Sussex Police forces. It covers 13 magistrates’ courts and six Crown Court centres. In the 12 months to June 2017 it had the full-time equivalent of 225 staff and its budget for 2017-18 is £22,220,288.

Inspectors examined 120 magistrates’ court and Crown Court files finalised between May and July 2017. The fieldwork involved direct discussions with members of the judiciary, partner agencies, CPS staff and court observations.

CPS South East Area Assurance Inspection report (240 kB)