A report from HM Crown Prosecution Inspectorate entitled Better Case Management: A Snapshot has been published this month.
What is Better Case Management?
It requires a number of steps to be taken in good time to progress cases early and prior to the first Crown Court hearing – the Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH). This primarily requires action by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – timely service of the prosecution evidence, Indictment and PTPH form by uploading them to the Digital Case System (DCS).
There needs to be early engagement with the defence representatives following service to enable issues to be properly identified. Those cases that can be dealt with by way of an early guilty plea following negotiation are expected to be identified by both parties at an early stage.
The first Plea and Trial Preparation Hearings were listed in February 2016 following the January roll out and the roll out of the Digital Case File which commenced in spring 2016 and was completed that May.
Inspectors visited five of the early adopter courts and the court observations in July 2016 took place within seven months of national roll out of BCM at the other 25 court centres visited during the fieldwork. The report is fairly described as a ‘snapshot’ and is hopeful that further progress will have been made since July.
The CPS identified ten key principles against which success can be judged. Unfortunately, the report appears to identify significant problems:
- Despite this being a national process, levels of compliance for some aspects of the scheme were as low as 10%
- Cases are not reviewed properly by the Crown either before the first Magistrates’ Court hearing or after sending to the Crown Court
- The police are charging cases in breach of guidance on charging without challenge from the CPS
- Limited evidence of CPS file ownership
- Although generally sufficient material was uploaded this was not always within the BCM timescales
- CCTV cannot be uploaded to the system and is not always available for a hearing
- Little evidence of active engagement between parties prior to the PTPH, with these deficiencies going unchallenged by the judiciary
- The absence of engagement results in additional hearings rather than fewer hearings
- PTPH hearings often had more emphasis on the timetabling process rather than being an informed discussion of the issues
- The CPS need to improve significantly if it is to contribute to the success of the initiative
There is a broad view that Better Case Management and digital service is a positive innovation in terms of being able to provide early advice to those facing criminal proceedings. We view it as a positve step forward. It is, however, dependent on the CPS maintaining focus on the initiative with a view to driving the improvements needed above.
The report appears optimistic that this is achievable, but we will have to wait and see.