Transforming Summary Justice (Feb 16)

Date of publication
22 February 2016
Crown Prosecution Service
CPS Region
England and Wales
Inspection type
CPS Themed Reports

The Transforming Summary Justice initiative was adopted by all criminal justice agencies from June 2015. Its aim is to reform the way that criminal cases are handled in the magistrates’ courts, and to create a swifter system with reduced delay and fewer hearings. If it is successful, it will reduce the amount of distress that victims and witnesses suffer during the court process.

HMCPSI, at the request of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), carried out an early inspection to assess how effectively the CPS is delivering its part in the Initiative. Under the Initiative, all cases should be reviewed by a CPS lawyer before the first hearing takes place. Any work needed to improve the case should take place before the first hearing, and unused material should be disclosed to the defence as soon as a not guilty plea is entered.

Although previous initiatives have failed substantially to improve the way that magistrates’ court work is delivered, this inspection found that there is a good deal of buy-in among CPS staff and their criminal justice system partners to achieve the aims of the Initiative. It is encouraging that generally all agencies are looking at their own performance rather than blaming others when things do not go as planned. The CPS has delivered good legal training to its staff and strong governance arrangements are in place. Against this background, a number of aspects of the Initiative have had a promising start. Inspectors assessed 81% of first hearings as effective, with the right people present and the prosecutors well prepared, robust and able to make decisions. The prosecution file is now substantially digital and prosecutors present their cases in the magistrates’ courts without paper copies, which can be of real benefit. However, it is essential that the focus is maintained and momentum is not lost. The initiative is still in its initial stages and has to be given time to bring about a real culture change, which cannot happen overnight.

It is also too early to say that the Initiative will lead to substantial long term improvements. It will be several months before this can be realistically and accurately judged. The success or otherwise of the Initiative will depend not only on an increase in the timeliness and numbers of guilty pleas but on a reduction in the numbers of trials and an increase in their effectiveness.

There is still a good deal of work to be done operationally. Although CPS charging decisions were found to be good, there was a failure to review the prosecution file in too many instances (37.7% of the cases considered). Both the quality and the timeliness of the CPS reviews need to be improved – this is fundamental to the success of the Initiative. CPS lawyers need to be much better at engaging with defence solicitors before court to ensure that the first hearing is as effective as possible. And the CPS needs to find a more effective way of working with the police to improve the quality of the prosecution file.

There are few effective mechanisms in place at this stage for sharing best practice between local CPS Areas or opportunities for them to learn lessons which could potentially save resources and avoid duplication. There is also some duplication and inconsistency between local Areas’ individual processes to measure the success of the Initiative.

The report details findings but does not make recommendations at this early juncture, rather it suggests steps to be taken to help embed the Initiative and to complement the work that is already being done. Suggestions include: a national forum to enable better sharing of good practice, learn lessons and save resources; improved coordinated training for administrative teams; simplifying the disclosure forms; and looking again, in conjunction with the Courts Service, at the numbers of cases listed in court so that resources are used most efficiently.

In carrying out this inspection, HMCPSI visited four CPS Areas (South West, West Midlands, London and East Midlands) during September and October 2015. Inspectors observed 19 magistrates’ courts sittings, and assessed 271 files from each CPS Area across England and Wales. 190 files were anticipated not guilty plea cases; 81 were anticipated guilty plea cases.

A follow-up inspection is planned within the next 12 months.

Transforming Summary Justice Report (Feb 16) (327 kB)