ONE of Portsmouth’s most senior judges has warned that the city’s legal system is in ‘an advanced state of chaos’.
Judge Richard Price’s comments about the Crown Prosecution Service come as it has undergone a major reorganisation in recent months.
Judge Price, speaking about delays in an assault case, said: ‘It can’t go on like this. It is very unfair on the defendant.’
Lawyers have said that delays have knock-on effects for victims and in some cases can deny justice.
Judge Price made his comments following an application for an adjournment on a case that had already faced hurdles numerous hurdles in court.
The judge, who has been the city’s honorary recorder, was speaking at the hearing of a man who had admitted punching his victim in a Portsmouth nightclub, but who did not agree with some of the facts of the case that the prosecution was claiming.
Attempts were being made to organise for a witness to give evidence via Skype from Australia.
Judge Price said: ‘The CPS says it did not know of the date (of the hearing). I do not accept that. They were told 24 days ago by e-mail.
‘I have a copy of that e-mail sent on the same date. The CPS says it did not receive it. I do not accept that. An e-mail that is not delivered is bounced back. The CPS is in an advanced stage of chaos.
‘I have heard that the CPS now has so many different e-mail boxes that if you want to send an e-mail about ‘x’ you must send it to the ‘x’ inbox.
‘If you send something about ‘x’ to ‘y’ mail, it won’t get through. I imagine that is what has happened.
‘It can’t go on like this. It is very unfair on the defendant.’
The defendant’s legal representative has told The News the disruption caused by the CPS’s reorganisation is having an impact on justice being done for victims.
After the case, Robert Ashworth, who has been a criminal defence lawyer for more than 20 years, said: ‘I have to work closely with the CPS but I think the problem they have had recently is new in as much as they have had a major reorganisation so all the geographic areas have been reorganised.
‘The court cases in Portsmouth are administrated in Portsmouth. That has all been completely broken up.
‘Because it is fairly new – I think it happened in November or December – there have been a lot of teething problems. Knowing who to contact is difficult – there are lots of offices. One will deal with one issue and not another. Because it is so new information seems to be getting lost.
‘It is no fault of the people working there, it is just a new way of organising things.
‘I work with them and I know them and how much hard work they put in.’
‘It is common throughout the courts in the country that they are under-staffed.
‘They are having to make cuts like everyone else.
‘From the victim’s point of view, they are the ones who will suffer most because cases are not being prepared as they should be.
‘That is the impact that the system is having. As far as defendants are concerned, it may delay cases being concluded. It can delay justice and any justice that is being delayed is not being done.
‘Defendants who are a danger to the public are remanded in custody.’
John Apter, chairman of Hampshire Police Federation, said members have not raised any specific concerns over the CPS’s move.’
‘JUSTICE delayed is justice denied,’ says former Royal Navy prosecutor and University of Portsmouth senior lecturer, Bernard Davis.
‘From the perspective of the victim, if your property has been stolen or you have been attacked, you want to see the defendant brought to justice,’ he said.
‘The longer that goes on for, the longer it takes for the victim to get closure and the offender brought to justice.
‘If you are a victim and you have built yourself up to go to court and potentially give evidence, it is such a letdown if your case is then adjourned.
‘In English criminal courts, the evidence in many cases comes from people who have witnessed something.
‘The longer a trial is delayed, the poorer is the recollection of the witness and therefore the evidence is less compelling.
‘If you look from the perspective of the defendant, it is absolutely essential that they get a fair trial.
‘Particularly if they are remanded in custody, it means that you can be held for a long time before you could be acquitted and then you have spent all that time in custody.
‘If you are going to call witnesses, their recollection could fade in time and their evidence could also be less compelling.’
Mr Davis added the service is run by the government, and also has to take a fair share of budget cuts.
THE Crown Prosecution Service says it has become ‘more resilient’ after its reorganisation.
Since the reorganisation at the end of last year, the organisation says it has taken steps to limit the impact of the changes.
A spokeswoman told The News: ‘The Crown Prosecution Service Wessex reorganised its structure as part as the national refocusing of the CPS.
‘The refocusing of the CPS was essential in order to continue delivering our service with a limited budget and being able to operate digitally.
‘This, without any doubt is a culture change not only for our staff but criminal justice agencies, such as the police, Her Majesty’s Court Service, the defence and also the judiciary.
‘Throughout this process we have communicated continuously with them as this new way of operating our work would impact on them.
‘For instance we explained why we were refocusing CPS Wessex and provided them with the full list of mailbox and contacts prior to the move to the new structure and also after.
‘At the time the judge made those comments, it is correct that the restructure of CPS Wessex and some of our processes were still quite new to our staff, however we are now almost five months post-refocusing and our teams are becoming more resilient.
‘We understand that this has impacted on correspondence we have had with the judiciary and the defence but our ultimate aim is to stop delaying justice for our victims and witnesses.
‘The CPS has been leading the way within the criminal justice system in terms of digital working.
‘This move to digital working is necessary not only to provide a modern and efficient service to victims and witnesses but also to be part of a modern and efficient criminal justice system and contributes to stop delaying justice.
‘We fully understand that this requires a considerable culture change for some of our stakeholders but this is the only way to provide a quality and efficient criminal justice system for the public we serve.’
THE Crown Prosecution Service has looked at how it can become more efficient and effective and reduce bureaucracy for the last few years.
The government’s spending review in 2010 announced budgets would decrease over time.
Last year it was announced offices would be closed and come together into offices in Portsmouth and Eastleigh.
In April last year, the area’s chief crown prosecutor, Kate Brown, said the Wessex area was one of the first to pilot digital working as ‘one of the ways to make substantive savings in future’.
In a statement, she said: ‘This new way of working is already a cultural change and our staff have shown commitment, dedication and resilience in embracing this very complex change.
‘Replacing paper files with electronic files is unfortunately not the only way to make savings. Our budget allocation for 2013/14 is £1m less than last year.
‘This reduction equates to a 24 per cent cut in the last five years.
‘We have enough people across Wessex to deal with our caseload; the challenge is ensuring those teams are best supported to undertake work to a high quality.’