Prosecutors in dock over disparity in convictions
The Times, 23 November 2005
By Sean O’Neill and Heather Brooke
The Crown Prosecution Service’s own data on the outcome of cases reveals huge variations in performance by its lawyers and administrators across England and Wales.
The Times obtained the data through a freedom of information request which led to the disclosure of spreadsheets of monthly case outcomes.
Further study of the results was carried out with the help of the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting (DICAR).The figures, covering just under a year’s caseload between September 2004 and August 2005, were refined to identify trends in performance by the CPS’s area offices and national patterns in the handling of different types of offence.
The CPS and its independent inspectorate has no plans to draw up similar league tables although the 42 areas are soon to be graded as excellent, good, fair or poor.
Tables, it says, are misleading because they lead to unhelpful comparisons between very different areas, such as West Mercia and Greater Manchester.
There are pitfalls. Factors such as the social composition of juries at different courts and the differences between rural and city crime have a huge influence on conviction rates.
But the data can be fairly used to identify regional offices which perform consistently poorly across the range of offences and to pinpoint types of crime where prosecutors across the country are struggling to secure convictions.
BEST & WORST
The best performing CPS area office, according to conviction rates, is Warwickshire, which is successful in 93 per of the cases it handles. The regional office has high conviction rates across the whole range of cases from homicide (where it secured 12 convictions in 12 cases) to motoring.
But Warwickshire’s apparent success is skewed by the high level of motoring offences which returned a 96 per cent conviction rate.
Bedfordshire always appears at or close to the bottom of the performance tables. Of 1,590 cases of offences against the person, only 51 per cent resulted in convictions. The CPS inspectorate found in June 2004 that Bedfordshire had fewer lawyers than in 2001 and that the workload handled by each prosecutor had risen from 695 cases per year to 875.
Criminal lawyers also point out important demographical differences. Warwick Crown Court is noted for having “stockbroker belt” juries and high conviction rates. Bedfordshire includes the high-crime town of Luton.
The CPS dealt with 1,135 homicide cases, including manslaughter and murder, over the 11-month period, resulting in 863 convictions (76 per cent).
Success rates varied significantly but so too did the incidence of homicide prosecutions. Nine areas had 100 per cent conviction rates but they handled just 71 cases in total. London, by contrast, dealt with 308 homicide cases and obtained convictions in 204 (66 per cent) of those. Among the larger urban districts, Merseyside (84 per cent) and Greater Manchester (77 per cent) had the best conviction rates.
Nottinghamshire, where police chiefs admitted they were struggling to deal with the level of murders, had a 79 per cent success rate with 16 convictions out of 21 homicide cases.
Prosecuting sexual offences, especially rape cases, is one of the most difficult areas. In five areas – Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Hertfordshire and South Wales – almost half (47 per cent) of all sex cases failed to produce a conviction.
The national rate was much higher, with 63 per cent of the total of 10,454 cases resulting in convictions. This still meant, however, that 3,894 cases referred to the CPS did not result in a conviction.
OFFENCES AGAINST PERSON
Nationally almost one third of the 125,000 cases involving violent assaults on individuals fail to result in a conviction. In Hertfordshire, Stafford and Bedfordshire less than 60 per cent of cases led to successful prosecutions.
All areas had relatively high conviction rates in drugs cases but defence lawyers point out that police sting operations and possession charges can quickly lead to guilty pleas. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” said one solicitor. There were still marked regional differences. In Dorset just 2 per cent of drugs prosecutions do not lead to a conviction; in Hertfordshire that rose to 16 per cent.
Antisocial behaviour is the law enforcement buzzword of the day, with yob behaviour and binge drinking leading to a large proportion of the almost 80,000 public order offences over the period. There were some surprising regional variations in conviction rates. In Northumbria, 89 per cent of the 5,599 cases taken up led to a conviction. Bedfordshire’s success rate was just 62 per cent.
Northamptonshire was again among the worst performers. It pursued 582 cases and was successful in 414. Dorset took up an almost identical number of criminal damage cases, 584, and secured convictions in 498. Humberside which had a 91 per cent success rate.
The CPS dealt with 441,603 motoring offences over the period – about 45 per cent of the total caseload – with a national conviction rate of 89 per cent.