The delivery of reports to court has developed since 2011, and the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) 2014 has seen further changes in the way the probation service provides information to the Court to assist with sentencing.
The National Probation Service (NPS) currently delivers the majority of Pre-Sentence Reports on the day of sentence or within five working days. This is in line with Probation Instruction 04/2016 which states: “The requirement remains to complete court reports within the timescale requested by the court, to maximise the number of court reports delivered on the day of request and to ensure that the assessment and analysis undertaken is sufficient and of good quality to provide appropriate sentencing proposals”.
The introduction of Transforming Summary Justice (TSJ) and Better Case Management (BCM) in 2016 has led to an increase of “on the day reports” (oral reports).
Staff working in court teams are expected to complete at least 70% of reports on the day and these can cover a range of offences including domestic abuse and sexual offending. In addition, there is an expectation that the majority of individuals who are currently subject to probation supervision who re-offend will be interviewed on the day.
The pressure to complete oral reports has, in my view, led to a decline in the quality of reports. The rush to sentence without adjournments can impact on safer sentencing and at times can fail to identify or even miss significant issues linked to offending behaviour. An example of this is the inability to obtain relevant information from Adult Services.
Speedy Summary Justice (SSJ) also relies heavily upon the quality of professional relationships with other criminal justice agencies. Whilst some may have developed good working practices with other court stakeholders, the police, children services, etc., others may not. This has led to a decline in consistency and quality of service – creating “a postcode lottery”.
I believe, the drive to deliver reports on the day has also led to a decline in the probation service’s professional identity within the court room and with other stakeholders including the public. The conflicting demands placed upon the court teams increase stress and staff constantly find themselves playing catch up.
At times, the courts have little understanding of the time and complexities of interviewing someone and gathering all the relevant information required to provide a coherent and safe proposal which best meets an individual’s needs to address their offending behaviour.
There are also the increasing number of forms that must be completed pre and post sentence. The Probation Officer or Probation Service Officer must: complete an equality impact form, a self-assessment questionnaire, and provide household and education and training information. They must obtain Crown Prosecution papers; Check Delius and Oasys; contact the police, child safeguarding, adult services, mental health, housing, the MAPPA unit, the supervising officer; and complete a risk of recidivism Score (RSR) and the effective practice tool. They must then interview the service user, write the report (some colleagues are actually doing their own), complete the common assessment screening (CAS), and the spousal risk assessment (SARA); then deliver the oral report (when the Court can usually fit this in), provide reporting instructions, scan all document and ensure all information is collated for court admin officers.
From a personal perspective my enjoyment and job satisfaction has eroded over the years. I no longer feel a sense of pride in my work and at times it can feel like working in a factory on a production line. I am aware many of my colleagues share similar feelings about our role in court. The target of 70% is far too high and should be reconsidered. As Amit Ray states: “Excellence comes when we balance quality with quantity”.