More than 2,000 cases that should have gone to trial in the Crown Court were thrown out last year because they were not ready, a watchdog says today.
The cases involve serious offences including burglary, theft, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, possession of drugs and possession with intent
to supply drugs.
The inspectors of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) say today in their report on the performance of the service that even though this throw-out rate is better than it was, it remains poor. In total 2,325 cases were lost because prosecutors were not ready to proceed.
The cases come before magistrates, who decide if the cases should be sent to the Crown Court for trial. Under pressure not to grant repeated adjournments for prosecutors, magistrates are increasingly taking a tough line and discharging cases when papers are not ready, evidence not complete or witnesses not lined up.
I am not sure why this has become a news story because this has been happening for years. The full text of the report is an interesting read for a laymans view on the sheer number of cases that are dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.
The Times article starts off by referring to what is known as committal proceedings. That is where the Client has elected to have his trial in the Crown Court, or the Court had stated that the Client's case is too serious to be dealt with in a Magistrates Court. The whole purpose of committal proceedings was originally to test the evidence in a case to ensure that was a prima facie case to be moved to the Crown Court. If the case was lacking in evidence then the case would be dropped, usually with a warning that the case may be revived if the evidential defects could be corrected. Before I started my job committal proceedings would involve all of the witnesses coming to Court and giving their evidence orally to Court in a mini trial, and submissions would be made to the Court on the basis of the evidence. If those submissions were accepted the case would be dismissed, if the submissions were not accepted the case would be moved to the Crown Court. The procedure was changed over time so that witnesses did not have to give oral evidence at committal hearings and that written statements could be relied upon instead. Now committal proceedings are simple:
- The Client pleads not guilty to an either way offence and either the Court declines to deal with his case at the Magistrates Court, or the Client elects to have his case dealt with at the Crown Court;
- The case is adjourned to allow the Prosecution time to prepare a bundle of papers containing statements setting out the evidence against the Client;
- That paper bundle is served on the Court and the Defence Solicitor. The Defence Solicitor then informs the Court and the CPS whether or not the Client consents to the case being moved to the Crown Court on the basis of the strength of the evidence in the papers;
- If the CPS do not prepare the evidential papers in time the Court will usually allow an adjournment for the CPS to have extra time to prepare their papers. But, if the case is not ready on the next hearing date the Court will usually refuse a further adjournment unless the case is of a more serious nature;
- If the Defence Solicitor does not consent to the case being committed to the Crown Court a further hearing takes place where submissions are made to the Court that the papers do not establish a case against the Client - if this submission is successful the case is dismissed by the Court. If the submissions are unsuccessful the case is moved to the Crown Court.
Schedule 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 contains provisions to do away with committal proceedings. There were widespread rumours a few years ago that the government were going bring in to force the new provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to abolish committal proceedings but so far these provisions have just remained on the statute book without coming in to force.
There really is no excuse for the CPS not to be ready for committal proceedings on time - and in my experience the vast majority of the cases that are not ready for committal are due to the Police not providing evidence that the CPS had previously asked for.