Cut-Price Prosecutions And Unprepared Advocates Leading To Mistakes In Court
Mistakes are being made in Crown Court cases by unprepared in-house prosecutors as bosses try to cut costs, a report said.
Attempts by local Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) managers to make savings are leading to in-house prosecutors having to rely on notes, being unable to anticipate likely questions and being of little use to judges in sentencing hearings.
Michael Fuller, Chief Inspector of Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI), warned that the cost of lawyers' fees was being put before quality, damaging cases.
"Efficiency and quality can be delivered at the same time but the CPS needs to ensure its in-house prosecutors aren't just used to save money, as the pursuit of good quality advocacy is paramount," he said.
In one instance, "an otherwise competent crown advocate was let down by a silly slip in opening, necessitating the jury being discharged", the HMCPSI report found.
"The chances of this occurring are increased with the need for last-minute preparation, leaving little time to focus calmly on the case."
It went on: "At times in-house advocacy tended to be less persuasive, lacking elements of presence and confidence in both presentation and argument; this accords with general feedback received from the judiciary."
The inspectors warned that the "overall decline in the performance of in-house advocates" in plea and case management hearings was a result of the increase in the number of cases they were required to present, late instructions and a lack of preparation time.
"In the crown court the continued focus on financial savings has resulted in late instruction of crown advocates who do not for the most part have the tools to prepare cases out of the office, and late instructions to self-employed counsel who do not have time to remedy poor preparation," they said.
The report added that "too frequently, inspectors observed (that) the crown advocate failed to be of any real assistance in the sentencing process, leaving all such matters to a dialogue between defence counsel and the judge".
The high number of defendants who entered late guilty pleas on what should be the first day of their trial meant many in-house crown advocates also had "limited trial experience", the report said, with each appearing in less than four trials a year.
"Inspectors observed that opportunities were still missed during cross-examination and speeches," it added.
"There were also failures to challenge clearly inadmissible and prejudicial evidence."
The report went on: "A number of crown advocates still have an over-reliance on case notes. This can have a negative impact on the conduct of a trial and the advocacy can become pedestrian when it need not be.
"The reliance on notes can result in a tendency to read to the court rather than engage with it during narrative advocacy and when questioning witnesses, it can lead to a disjointed account with details overlooked.
"The lack of confidence was also demonstrated in the failure to apply to use the memory refreshing provisions, which should be second nature to experienced trial advocates, to bring the witness back to proof or as a foundation where there may be an application to declare a witness hostile."
Instances of in-house prosecutors agreeing to "inappropriate pleas" also caused concerns, with inspectors saying the situation needs to improve.