Errors stop nearly a million court cases

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POOR WORKING relationships between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts have helped to create an inefficient criminal justice system that wastes pounds 55m a year, says the National Audit Office.

In its first review of the criminal courts, the public spending watchdog found 750,000 magistrates' hearings have to be adjourned each year because of "errors and omissions" by one of the parties. It estimated that costs pounds 40m. Scheduled Crown Court cases that do not go ahead cost another pounds 15m. Half of all ineffective hearings at magistrates' courts resulted from failures within, or in liaison between, the police the CPS and the courts.

Yesterday the audit office recommended tougher sanctions for magistrates and judges to "tackle unsatisfactory performance" by the CPS and other agencies, such as the probation service.

It also proposed that defence lawyers, partly responsible for one-quarter of all ineffective hearings in the magistrates' courts, should be made to perform to higher standards when preparing their cases.

The review team pounds 9bn a year is spent to process two million defendants through the criminal courts. A truly efficient system will be achieved only if co-operation improves. Sir John Bourn, head of the office, said: "For this to happen there must be the right structures in place. Millions of pounds could be saved by reducing the number of ineffective hearings. Implementing our recommendations could go a long way to achieving this."

The survey also revealed one-quarter of adjournments in magistrates' courts resulted from defendants failing to appear. The audit office recommends that the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department look at ways to impose effective sanctions on defendants who breach bail conditions.