Audit: Justice system doesn’t deliver value for money

Conservative cuts have led to crippling inefficiencies

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A report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that ‘the criminal justice system is not currently delivering value for money’.

‘Efficiency in the criminal justice system’ found that inefficiency in the justice system must be addressed to prevent the combination of increasing demand and cuts to funding from leading to ‘slower, less accessible justice’.

Spending on the criminal justice system has fallen by 26 per cent in real terms since 2010-11, and this is set to continue. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is not a protected department and was badly hit by departmental cuts announced in George Osborne’s November Spending Review.

The chancellor announced cuts of £500m to the MoJ budget by 2019-20: this amounts to an 8 per cent drop from the MoJ’s £6.5bn budget for 2015/16 and is a third less than its £9bn budget in 2010/11.

It’s clear that the cuts are already having an impact on the performance of the justice system, and inefficiencies perpetuate money loss. The NAO found that:

  • Against ‘a backdrop of continuing financial pressure’ delays are getting worse: backlogs in the Crown Court increased by 34 per cent between March 2013 and September 2015, and waiting time for a Crown Court hearing has increased by 35 per cent (from 99 days to 134) since September 2013
  • Two-thirds of cases do not progress as planned, creating unnecessary costs. Delays or collapsed cases undermine people’s faith in the justice system; only 55 per cent of people who have been a witness or victim in court would be prepared to do so again.
  • In 2014-15, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) spent £21.5 million on preparing cases that were not heard in court. Of this, £5.5 million related to cases that collapsed due to ‘prosecution reasons’, including non-attendance of prosecution witnesses and incomplete case files. Backlogs in the Crown Court increased by 34 per cent  between March 2013 and September 2015, and waiting time for a Crown Court hearing increased from 99 days to 134 over the same period.
  • Between 2010 and 2015 £44 million has been incurred in additional costs due to the increasing length of Crown Court trials(year ending September 2015 over 2010-11

So what’s behind these inefficiencies? According to the NAO, mistakes that happen early on in criminal proceedings are often not picked up on until later; a 2015 inspection found that 18.2 per cent of police charging decisions were incorrect.

Incorrect charging decisions should be picked up by the CPS before court, but 38.4 per cent of cases were not reviewed before reaching court.

The NAO’s report says that the justice system as a whole is inefficient ‘because its individual parts have strong incentives to work in ways that create cost elsewhere […] there is no common view of what success looks like.

For example, courts staff are told to schedule more trials than can be heard so that there are back-ups when a trial cannot proceed (and staff and facilities are in use as much as possible).

This is both a cause and result of inefficiencies in the system (too many trials collapse), and creates obvious costs and inconveniences for other parties.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said today:

“It is essential that the criminal justice system pulls together and takes collective responsibility for sorting out the longstanding issues.”

The pressure is on for these reforms: while further cuts kick in, time is running out to ensure that the justice system can weather the storm and does not sink under the weight of its own inefficiencies.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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