The beginning of last year brought publication of Sir Brian Leveson’s Review on Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings. As a result of the Review all efforts are presently focused on Better Case Management (BCM) in the Crown Court.
The three key changes to the management of cases will be:
Better Case Ownership
If the problem with the old system was the lack of continuity in people in the conduct of cases, the solution is to have one person who is clearly identified in the police, the CPS and the defence who are responsible for the conduct of the case. This traditionally was the Officer in the Case (OIC), the Prosecutor of the Case and the Trial advocate. For the OIC the difficulty with continuity was the day job, resources and cases requiring varying degrees of forensic investigation and/or information gathering. For the Prosecutor the difficulty with continuity has always been the fact that the dam allowing for reasonable case loads broke years ago. With all impartiality, the Trial Advocate was never in difficulty and is always committed (until the case comes out of the list the night before and reappears midway through his/her representation on another trial).
The lack of continuity has forever been a thorn in the side of effective case management. Having identifiable persons with conduct of the case is definitely the solution. The duty imposed by the BCM system means those with conduct of the case must engage at the first available opportunity. The ability to therefore communicate via electronic means and not necessarily on specific dates at hearings will hopefully assist in continuity and case progression.
A new Digital Case System (DCS)
On 5 January 2016 the digital age arrived at the Criminal Courts. A web-based digital Crown Court file will be accessible in courts by the judiciary, defence and prosecution. Isleworth, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Merthyr, Portsmouth, Reading and Woolwich were the “early adopter” courts and have reported varying successes.
The life of a case starts on the DCS by the Court uploading the case papers. The Court then “invites” anyone they wish to access it. The access is connected to that person’s CJSM account and so file sharing is therefore restricted. It appears however from the early adopters that without an invite there becomes a significant hindrance at the PTPH as Defence advocates have not always been able to obtain an “invite” and access the papers beforehand. This is invariably due to the fact that Defence advocates are traditionally instructed the night before and are unable to contact anyone within the Courts after hours.
One of the key objectives of the BCM system is for there to be fewer hearings but without the DCS working well there is likely to be a need for another hearing to allow for the Defence to be prepared and to properly advise on plea or directions.
One solution canvassed recently was to have a dedicated contact to allow for barristers to chase “invitations” via a portal and not via their instructing solicitor. However, if we are to go digital we should embrace it. Instead of a dedicated person perhaps there could just be a system where the Courts upload cases that have still not got defence invitees, to a separate folder. The defence then log in with their CJSM email and the case number which could generate an automated code to be sent to the CJSM email and then re-entered for direct access to a specific case file. It is similar to when you forget your password on Court serve. However once the case file is accessed, that specific case file will be removed from the said folder to limit the amount of people with access to the file. It could in actual fact alleviate the entire need for “invites” whilst still maintaining only authorised and identifiable representatives have access.
Plea & Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH)
Under Rule 3.13(1)(b) of the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015, the Crown Court must now conduct a PTPH instead of preliminary hearings and plea and case management hearings (PCMHs). The PTPH will largely follow the same format as PCMHs. It must be held within 28 days of sending and an indictment must be lodged at least 7 days in advance of the PTPH.
There will be a PTPH form and depending on the Court this has been said to take 20 minutes for Judges to fill in with the parties. There are calls for there to be a more streamlined version of the form which currently requires parties to answer over 50 individual questions.
If the Defendant chooses to plead guilty, the Prosecution should be informed before the PTPH if practicable. The Judge can then order a PSR at once if required and ensure there is sufficient time allocated at the PTPH for sentence. Probation will be encouraged to provide stand down reports at the PTPH (if appropriate).
Pre-Trial Reviews and Mentions or Further Case Management Hearings as they will now be called are discouraged unless the case is complex. Any Party who wishes for a further hearing is required to justify the need in writing. It is unclear at the moment whether the Court will embrace telephone hearings to again consolidate court time. In one Court I have appeared in, it had become a convenient alternative for mention hearings to be via telephone with the defence not having to appear in person.
The BCM system has attempted to address the most time consuming aspects of case management. The objective is to bring efficiency. With case ownership and proper working of the DCS there can be greater progression of cases at PTPHs and overall efficiency. We could then realistically cut away the need for further hearings, which were largely without pay but at great Court and personal expense, and have a new and effective case management system in full bloom by spring.