Gideon’s Paperless Nonsense

George Osborne has been doing the rounds of the TV studios, deflecting from his failing economic strategy and lack of a Plan B by talking about waste in the system and the great cuts he’s going to be making to sort everything out. 

One that caught my eye (that was picked up by an editorial in The Sun) was that the CPS print one millions pieces of paper a day (best said in an Austin Powers voice that Osbourn almost manages). Or, as Osbourne put it “the Crown Prosecution Service produces a staggering ONE MILLION pieces of paper every day“.
One of the tasks I’d set myself this weekend was to have a look into this. It turns out however that Tim Harford has already done it on More or Less, a brilliant radio programme on Radio 4 looking at the (mis)use of statistics (it’s 20 minutes in).
But, a brief overview of what they came up with… There are 1½ million cases a year that the CPS deal with. Given a total figure of 365 million pieces of paper (it’s not clear of Osbourne’s claim is 1 million pages per calender day or working day, but the 1 million figures is clearly an approximation in any event, so we’ll be generous to him and give the higher figure).
The means that an average case has about 243 pages. This sounds about right – there will be the odd Jubilee Line Fraud with millions of pages, but plenty of driving guilty pleas with 10 or 20 pages).
The total cost of printing all of this is a maximum of £7 million (assuming that there is no discount for bulk purchasing which the CPS must do, so the figure is almost certainly less). Which works out at £4.66 per case.

Whilst that may sound a lot, it’s not actually that much in the great scheme of things. In fact, looking at the CPS Annual Report and Accounts 2012 gives a figure of £5.48 million or £3.65 per case. Again, the figure is less as this includes other stationary (although as anyone who has tried to find a stapler in a CPS office can tell you, they’re not spending  much on there).

Surely we can save money here though? We’ve been promised paperless working, lets get that up and running and save some money there? Well, there are a few problems.

Firstly, the CPS will always need to print and copy things. There are unrepresented defendants and the secure email system leaves a lot to be desired. It’s so secure it often doesn’t send or receive.

Secondly, turning the Crown Court system paperless is not free. It is difficult to put a figure on it, but given previous IT disasters, the figure is likely to be ‘a lot’.

But the bigger point is that a drive to solve this problem may well be penny wise but pound foolish. A couple of days lost in Court due to IT problems (which will happen) and the savings will begin to evaporate.

Rather than targeting headline-grabbing suggestions, maybe it’s best to start with the basics and do the job properly. That same year, the CPS paid out £385,000 in wasted costs for example.

It’s not very glamorous, but if cases were prepared properly, this would ultimately save far more money. As an example from a recent case I dealt with there was, by my calculation, 500 pages that were copied in a rush that, with proper case management, needn’t have been. I’m certainly in favour of more paperless working, but this has got to be done as part of a wider reform of the system, not a quick fix to get the budgets down.

The lesson from every practitioner is probably the same. The MoJ and the CPS are desperate to cut their bottom line, even when this is far outweighed by an increase elsewhere. If they were more grown up, then there would be an adult discussion about all parts of the system working together to get costs down (which is certainly do-able). Until then, we’ll carry on getting measures that create a cheap headline but don’t work.



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