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Overstretched justice system failing victims and witnesses

27 May 2016

The Public Accounts Committee report warns that the criminal justice system is close to breaking point.

Report findings

The Committee's report describes the system as "bedevilled by long standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies, and costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another".

It concludes the system is not good enough at supporting victims and witnesses and timely access to justice is too dependent on where victims and witnesses live. 

The Committee is concerned the Ministry of Justice "has been too slow to recognise where the system is under stress, and to take action to deal with it".

Greater devolution might complicate fragmented system

Although it welcomes the Ministry's reform programme, the Committee concludes the full benefit will not be seen for another four years "and users of the system should not have to wait this long to see real change".

The Committee also highlights a lack of clarity over plans to devolve greater responsibility for criminal justice, finding that while this might provide opportunities to improve local co-operation, it could risk adding complexity to an "already fragmented" system.

Court performance data should be published by end of 2016

Among its recommendations to government the Committee calls on the Criminal Justice Board to set out what it will do to improve co-ordination in the system.

This should include publishing, by the end of this year, performance information gathered through the Crown Court performance tool "so that court users can see how the service they receive compares with the rest of the country".

The Committee urges rapid and significant improvements in service to victims and witnesses, and proposes giving the Victims Commissioner the option of becoming a full member of the Criminal Justice Board.

A timetabled plan to share good practice nationally and bring the worst performing areas up to an agreed minimum level of performance should also be published.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"An effective criminal justice system is a cornerstone of civil society but ours is at risk.

Too little thought has been given to the consequences of cutbacks with the result that the system's ability to deliver justice, together with its credibility in the eyes of the public, is under threat.

Our Report paints a stark picture of the human cost of critical failings in management from the top down.

The system is overstretched and disjointed. Victims of crime are entitled to justice yet they are at the mercy of a postcode lottery for access to that justice.

About two-thirds of Crown Court trials are delayed or do not go ahead at all and only 55% of those who have been a witness say they would be prepared to do so again. These are damning statistics.

The Government has dragged its heels in addressing these problems. The Ministry is now seeking to reform the system but there is more action it can take immediately to benefit struggling regions, and therefore taxpayers.

It is vital work in this area and any steps to devolve greater responsibility for criminal justice are monitored carefully.

We will be holding the Government to account on this and will expect it to provide details of its plans and progress in the months ahead."

Report summary

The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.

Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies.

There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country.

Criminal justice system "already overstretched"

The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance.

The Government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won't see the full benefit for another four years.

There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.

Further information

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