Saturday, July 09, 2005

Court ruling let to work overload, says Social Services

Backlog on Social Services reports * by Brian Reyes

The current backlog of pre-sentence reports clogging up the court system stems from a Supreme Court ruling that virtually doubled the Probation Service’s workload in the space of a year, the Social Services Agency said yesterday.

A spokesman for Social Services said the agency had received no forewarning in order to prepare for the impact of the decision, which took it unawares and hit resources in a manner that was “as obvious as [it was] predictable.”

The agency is currently looking at ways of clearing the build-up of reports and meeting future demand.

The Chronicle reported last Monday (see link below) that delays in the writing of these reports had led to a significant number of court cases which could otherwise have been closed remaining, instead, on hold.

One man who had pleaded guilty to a drugs-related charge, for example, had to wait five months before he was finally sentenced. In that case, the report was never completed.

Numerous cases are adjourned by the Magistrate’s Court on a daily basis pending completion of pre-sentence reports by the Probation Service, which is part of the Social Services Agency.

In a response to questions from this newspaper, a spokesman for the agency explained that the delays were the result of a sharp increase in the number of requests for reports.

“The present backlog of pre-sentencing reports stems from a decision of the court in December 2003,” the agency spokesman said in a written statement to the Chronicle.

“The then Stipendiary Magistrate sentenced a man to prison [but] his decision was overruled by the Supreme Court, which then decided that in cases where a custodial sentence was likely to be imposed, a pre-sentence report has to be considered.

The Magistrate’s Court has interpreted that to mean that a pre-sentence report from the Probation Officer is required in every case where a custodial sentence is contemplated.

The effect of this ruling has been that the court’s requirement for pre-sentencing reports by the Agency’s probation service has increased from 94 in 2003 to 170 2004.

The effect of this decision - upon which the Agency had no prior warning before coming into effect – on the resources of the Agency are as obvious as they were predictable.”

Apart from the increased workload, however, the Chronicle understands that the delays with pre-sentence reports have been exacerbated by staff moves within the agency, with key probation employees switching to new posts within Social Services during the past year.

Pre-sentencing reports do not substitute a good defence lawyer but can prove beneficial to defendants because they offer an independent assessment of that person’s circumstances, including any mitigating factors that should be taken into account when sentencing.

Social Services is currently exploring ways in which it can meet the increased demand for reports and has held discussions on this issue with both government and senior figures within the judiciary, including the Chief Justice and the Stipendiary Magistrate.

“The Agency is presently considering what additional resources can be redeployed or acquired to increase the production of pre-sentencing reports for the Magistrate’s Court,” the agency’s spokesman said.

In the statement, Social Services also pointed out that its staff complement had already increased since 1996, doubling in size from seven to 15 employees.

Whereas before there used to be one senior social worker and six social workers, the present structure at the agency includes a chief executive, two team leaders, three senior social workers and nine social workers.

Not all of those employees handle probation-relation matters, however. The agency’s remit is extensive and covers both children and adult services, ranging from probation and welfare matters to running day centres for the elderly and disabled people.

Related Article:

04 July 2005 - Court raps Social Services over delays

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