Speech to the Institute of Legal Executives

Speech by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Dominic Grieve KC

“Thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual luncheon. This has been a year of real achievement for ILEX and Legal Executives. These achievements are a testament to the high quality of your members and the work that they do.

“I have been asked to speak about a subject of my choice. A very wide brief and, some would say, a reckless one to give to a lawyer. What I want to speak about is one if the issues that exercises all of us in government: how we provide high quality public services in these straightened financial times.

“I therefore want to speak about a current practical issue affecting the operation of the criminal law: the challenge to the prosecution, working in partnership with other criminal justice services, to deliver greater efficiency in the current public expenditure situation.

“The largest Department for which I am responsible as Attorney, which plays a part in nearly every criminal case that comes to court in England and Wales, is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS, headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, now carries out a wider range of functions than was ever envisaged when it was formed.

“In 2010-11, the CPS prosecuted nearly 958,000 defendants in the courts in England and Wales: over 116,000 in the Crown Court, and about 841,000 in the magistrates’ courts. In addition it dealt with 13,961 appeals and 19,857 committals for sentence in the Crown Court.

“What these cases cost the CPS varies considerably, depending on the court, the type of case, and the outcome. Thus, for example, for a summary case in which the defendant pleads guilty prior to the date of trial, the average ‘unit cost’ is £60, but for a case proceeding to trial, £372. For an either way offence tried in the magistrates’ court, the cost is £479. In the Crown Court, the unit cost for a timely guilty plea is £773, for a late guilty plea £1,096, and for a contested trial, about £1,700. The unit cost for committal for sentence by the Crown Court is £157. These figures are particularly relevant to what I will say later about ensuring that cases are heard in the appropriate court; and encouraging defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so at the earliest opportunity.

“The resource budget of the CPS will fall from £621m in 2011-12 to £526m in 2014-15 so it will have to find innovative ways of delivering its service to the public and the Criminal Justice System. In many ways the CPS is ahead of the game in this process. Of particular interest to you will be the CPS decision, taken as long ago as 1999 to allow Associate Prosecutors (then called Designated Caseworkers) to deal with straightforward matters in the magistrates’ courts. I will say more about Associate Prosecutors later.

“The CPS is also actively looking at the use of technology to bring greater efficiencies to the Criminal Justice System. Big IT projects are expensive so agencies need to make the best use of the technology they have already got.

“We must move to a digital criminal justice system as soon as possible.

“The CPS is leading the way here, with the aim of working largely digitally by April 2012. Projects in several areas are already demonstrating how this can be done. In March, a prosecutor prosecuted a guilty plea case at Winchester Crown Court from a laptop - with the Judge also working from a laptop. In Merseyside, the electronic file will shortly become the primary file within the CPS office for CJSSS cases. At Aberystwyth Magistrates’ Court, a prosecutor is regularly prosecuting cases from a laptop, and advanced information is now being served on the court electronically. The CPS has successfully trialled regularly using Electronic Presentation of Evidence in document intensive fraud trials; and the Central Fraud Group in Manchester is well on the way to digitalising all their cases. And the CPS is also beginning to make witness care units paperless.

“Electronic caseworking and using an electronic case file will significantly reduce the CPS’s reliance and dependency on paper and support more flexible and mobile ways of working. The benefits are simpler, faster and more cost effective preparation and communication. Most importantly it can improve the service to victims and witnesses. A digital file will ensure that the necessary information is provided more quickly to victims and witnesses and in a manner that they want.

“It will be vital going forward that all the criminal justice organisations are working, and joined up, digitally. We would like to see electronic case files and case management systems becoming standard throughout the CJS. My Office and the prosecution services have recently agreed with the Law Society a Memorandum of Understanding to support the greater use of secure emails. This will really speed up the provision of information throughout the system and enable problems to be addressed sooner and support more efficient working between the prosecution and defence.

“It is also important that resources are not wasted by cases being heard in an inappropriate court or being prepared for trial when earlier consideration of the issues could have made it clear that the case was always going to be a plea.

“The Crown Court is the right place for the most serious cases, and when a defendant has elected to be tried by jury, but it does the justice system no good if cases go to the Crown Court when they do not need to be there. In the last few years, workloads in the Crown Court have increased, while those in the magistrates’ courts have fallen, so that they are operating at significantly less than full capacity. In 2009, there were nearly a fifth more cases received in the Crown Court for trial or sentence than in 2006 (136,000 rather than 113,000). Over this period, the Crown Court considerably improved efficiency by dealing with almost 20,000 more cases, but over 40,000 cases were awaiting trial in 2009. And of course Crown Court cases are significantly more expensive than those in the magistrates’ courts.

“For all these reasons, it is in everyone’s interests to see more cases dealt with summarily by magistrates. While the discretion for magistrates to refer cases to the higher court where necessary should be preserved, this should happen only when there are clear and compelling reasons. Cases are being tried in costly ways, even when there is a choice. Over 55% of defendants in ‘either way’ cases sentenced in the Crown Court receive a sentence which could have been imposed by magistrates.

“One of the worst inefficiencies in the system is that more than two-thirds of the cases reaching the Crown Court end in a guilty plea. Well over 10,000 such cases in 2009 pleaded guilty at the door of the court. In most instances the defendant could have done so, and been sentenced, in the magistrates’ court. Their not doing so means that court, police, prosecution and legal aid resources are wasted on cases that did not need to progress any further. Moreover, and very importantly, victims and witnesses have longer to wait before they discover whether they will have to give evidence, and the outcome of their case. This can increase their stress and worry at having to give evidence and is unfair on them. Late guilty pleas also delay other cases in the Crown Court increasing the worry and stress for the defendants, victims and witnesses in those cases.

“The sentencing framework has long recognised the benefits of early guilty pleas in terms both of efficiency and of sparing victims needless worry. We all want to ensure that defendants are encouraged to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity, e.g. by more effective use of the sentence discount given for an early guilty plea.

“Last year, I visited Liverpool Crown Court and saw the ‘Early Guilty Plea’ initiative there. This aims to have just one hearing to dispose of a case in which the defendant is pleading guilty. The impact of good case management was striking. I was impressed at what could be done by co-operation but with clear independence of roles. It is no longer acceptable to say it is for the prosecution to prove their case and allow the defence to sit back and do nothing until the beginning of the trial when far too often the plea is changed to one of guilty.

“Can the success of the Liverpool scheme be replicated elsewhere? To find that out, pilots of Early Guilty Plea (EGP) arrangements are now running at Reading, Winchester, Chelmsford and Bristol Crown Courts. Only last week during a visit to the Crown Prosecution Service in Reading I met with Her Honour Judge Smith the Senior Resident Judge at Reading Crown Court and discussed this initiative with her. It was clear from that discussion and from my discussions with the CPS that the Early Guilty Plea Scheme could bring significant benefits to the Criminal Justice System. The key principles of the system are:

  • early identification by the CPS of suitable cases, and provision of papers to agreed deadlines, with preparation proportionate to the complexity of the case;

  • active defence participation - ensuring that clients are engaged early, and that the time from service of papers to the EGP hearing is fully utilised; and

  • the defence and CPS together ensuring that the EGP hearing is effective, with the expectation that defendants will enter a guilty plea, and sentencing will take place then, wherever possible.

“Although these principles are relatively simple, they can only be put into practice through the cooperation of all agencies, and the involvement of defence practitioners in giving prompt and realistic advice to clients. But the benefits, including savings of time and resources, and greater efficiency and effectiveness, should be felt by all who may be involved in a court hearing: police, prosecution, defence, court service, probation and prisoner escorts. The defendant of course benefits from maximum discount for plea. And, last but definitely not least, victims and witnesses should be saved stress and anxiety, as cases are finalised more quickly, and their presence may not be required in court.

“I come back finally to the role of Associate Prosecutors in the CPS. Since their introduction Associate Prosecutors have become a valuable addition to the criminal justice system. They are experienced criminal advocates dealing with a wide range of cases in the magistrates’ courts. As the high quality of Associate prosecutors became clear the range of work that they can undertake has expanded along with their skill and experience and as you know some Associate Prosecutors even prosecute contested trials in summary only non-imprisonable offences.

“Their presence in the magistrates’ courts has allowed lawyer colleagues to concentrate on more serious casework or taking charging decisions giving the CPS greater flexibility in staff deployments. With ILEX Professional Standards as their professional regulator there can be complete confidence that Associate Prosecutors will continue to provide a high quality service and remain an asset to the criminal justice system.

“The decision by both Houses of Parliament to approve the order allowing ILEX Professional Standards to regulate litigation rights is a real vote of confidence in ILEX. It was clear from the comments of Members of both Houses the high regard that ILEX and Legal Executives are held in.

“The legal environment has changed rapidly over the past few years. There is greater competition in the legal market and it is no longer just solicitors and barristers who provide legal services. I believe that in the legal market as elsewhere competition is usually a good thing. Legal Executives are well placed to take advantage of that competition. Many have done so in already and I am sure that many more will do so in the future.”

Published 19 May 2011