Saturday, March 11, 2006

Somebody Get That Bleedin' Phone!

I once worked in a dismal open-plan office where the tightly packed MFI desks overflowed with computer kit, unfiled paperwork, and mouldering fast-food detritus. For some unaccountable reason there was a phone hidden under one jumbled bank of desks, lodged deep down amongst the tangled wires, old shoes and general filth. It was so far down it was impossible to reach, even for keen young blades out to impress. And nobody- including Office Services- had the faintest idea who might own it. For obvious reasons it was known as the Batphone.

Every few months it would ring. And ring. And ring. We knew there was nothing we could do, but it always made us tense. Was it just Commissioner Gordon again? Or somebody wanting to order Set Menu B for two persons? Or was it as we feared, an angry client, who would now definitely sack us for ignoring his calls?

I was reminded of this during the week, as I listened to the Public Accounts Committee grilling the Director of Public Prosecutions. They were quizzing him about the NAO report on the Crown Prosecution Service, which, as we blogged previously, is a tale of incompetence among our state prosecutors. In the US, they may have those smart DAs who look like a million dollars, always get the bad guys 10 to 20 in Sing Sing, and who end up running for the White House. But over here we apparently have a bunch of timeservers who are only working for the £568m pa CPS because they can't get a job with a real law firm. The report estimates CPS shortcomings cost us £24m pa, even before taking account of the villains who walk free because we fail to nail them.

According to the NAO, all kinds of cases collapse because the CPS lawyers aren't properly prepared, have mislaid files, or can't produce the appropriate evidence. But the thing that got most attention was this (para 3.20):

"It can be very difficult for the police, courts or defence solicitors to contact the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer responsible for a particular case. Most lawyers are out of the office, and either their office phones do not record messages or they are not answered in their absence."

It's fair to say PAC members were nonplussed. In this day and age how can CPS lawyers be uncontactable? One member produced a pager and a Blackberry, which he offered to supply for £49.95 apiece to CPS lawyers.

This is a classic case of jobsworth working culture. Because there are no customers in the normal sense of the term, those ringing phones are never going to be angry clients about to sack your firm. So why answer someone else's phone when it's only going to land you with more work?

Best keep your head down and hope it's just Commissioner Gordon again.

PS Even for dedicated small staters like me, the criminal justice system is one area where the state really has to be in charge. And despite the NAO report, the DPP actually seems like a man who wants to change things for the better. He's only been there for two years and he is afterall a fun lovin' criminal himself. He's promised to implement the NAO recommendations, so maybe somebody will be getting the phones in future. We'll watch with interest.

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