When criminal trials are "cracked"

19 January 2016
What was claimed

A "cracked" trial is one that's dropped because a witness doesn't turn up or withdraws their evidence.

Our verdict

A criminal trial can be "cracked", or closed unexpectedly, for lots of reasons. Problems with witnesses aren't the main cause.

“HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate... found a rising number of prosecutions were "cracked"—which is the term used for a case that closes unexpectedly because a witness is absent or has withdrawn evidence."

BBC News, 19 January 2016

This isn’t quite right. A criminal trial can be ‘cracked’, or be closed unexpectedly, for reasons that have nothing to do with witnesses.

A trial will generally be deemed to have “cracked” where a trial date has been set but the defendant pleads guilty on the day, or the prosecution has no evidence to give.

This means that the case is resolved without a trial. But lawyers, judges and witnesses will have prepared for one and booked in the necessary court time—so it’s not an efficient outcome. Cracked trials are a problem.

The agency that inspects prosecutors released a report today focusing on witnesses and their role in cracked trials.

That may explain why the BBC report defines a cracked trial as something caused by witnesses, when in fact late guilty pleas are the main culprit. In 2014/15 one in five of all criminal trials in England and Wales were cracked for this reason.

“The [inspectorate's] report said that 2.1% of trials in the crown court and 6.8% of trials in the magistrates' court were ‘cracked’ in 2014-15, compared with 1.8% and 6.3% respectively the previous year.”

This might cause confusion. About 35% of trials in the crown court and 37% in the magistrates’ court were cracked in 2014/15.

The inspectors’ report said that 2.1% and 6.8% of trials were cracked because a witness didn’t give evidence—a rise on the previous year.

The overall level of cracked trials has actually fallen recently, particularly in the crown court where more serious cases happen. Five years ago, 42% of scheduled crown court cases finished without a trial, compared to 37% last year.

The proportion of trials that are ‘ineffective’, or have to be rescheduled at some point, has also dropped. But the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has called for improvement.

In particular, he points to problems with court administration, which are accounting for an increasing share of delayed cases.

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