Hundreds of suspects are walking free from court because of widespread failures by prosecution lawyers, a damning report into the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London has found.
Among the most worrying cases are those involving allegations of rape, where conviction rates slipped back badly last year.
The findings by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate follow a leaked CPS email seen by The Independent which described one south London borough as being in "meltdown".
Inspectors said that only one of the 20 boroughs it looked at had achieved a "good" rating, and 12 were judged to be poor. The report blamed an overload of targets and initiatives which left prosecutors struggling to meet their court deadlines.
CPS London dropped 15.4 per cent of its Crown Court cases in 2009, compared with 11.6 per cent nationally. The major concern for inspectors was that the lower tier of Crown Court casework was too often poorly prepared, with "adverse effects on readiness and presentation at court and that these feed through into the substantially worse outcomes in London when compared to national performance".
In cases involving allegations of rape, CPS London had a conviction rate in the last year of 43.8 per cent, below the national average of 58.2 per cent.
This figure will be of particular concern to the CPS as it comes after the publication of a national review of the treatment of rape victims by the cross-bench peer Baroness Stern. She said yesterday that the conviction rate in Crown Courts was the best way to evaluate success in rape prosecutions.
HM Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, Stephen Wooler, said: "These findings are both disappointing and worrying. Our overall performance assessments in 2005 and 2007 identified real weaknesses and those reports should have been acted on sooner." He added: "During the course of the assessment process there were substantial changes in the CPS London senior management team. There has been much activity to identify the key issues facing CPS London, and a new approach is now being adopted. I very much hope that this will result in tangible improvement."
The new head of the CPS in London, Alison Saunders, has promised to improve the service it provides to victims and witnesses in the capital. Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the CPS, said: "I am fully aware that CPS London needs to perform much better ... and making that happen is a process which I will be closely involved with. I have confidence that under Alison Saunders' direction CPS London's challenges will be addressed and that our performance in London can be turned around."
Ms Saunders acknowledged that "This report does not make easy reading for us. It confirms the shortcomings that we had already identified and have begun to address. In recent years, CPS London embarked on an ambitious and groundbreaking programme of new projects and initiatives, all of which will deliver, or have already delivered, benefits."
She added that "Implementing those changes could have been handled better, and we will now give those initiatives time to embed before they bring the longer-term benefits."