MERSEYSIDE'S probation service is in crisis, with reports taking so long to process that court cases are being delayed up to five weeks.
The situation, which in turn is clogging up the prison system, has escalated to such a level that judges have taken to complaining in open court hearings about staff shortages and a lack of funding from Government.
In one such attack, senior North West circuit judge Sean Duncan raised serious concerns that the probation service was unable to cope with demand due to the number of staff assigned to Liverpool Crown Court.
The problem hinges on the length of time it is taking for probation officers to prepare pre-sentence reports, which are designed to give as much information as possible to the courts about the offender.
The reports, which can significantly influence the decision of judges handing out sentences, are meant to take between two and three weeks to prepare.
Currently in Liverpool, they are taking up to seven weeks to process, leaving defendants either out on licence or locked in cells for weeks longer than necessary.
A spokesman for the probation service, which has its national headquarters in Liverpool, blamed the problem on a new case management system brought in this year, but said the service had now pledged to revert to the original times.
However, he admitted it was too early to say if staff would be able to cope once more cases started to flood in under the new Criminal Justice Act 2003, which came in on April 4 this year.
Judge Duncan made his remarks when he was due to sentence Timothy Askew on Monday April 25.
The case had been adjourned on March 8 until then to enable the probation service to prepare a pre-sentence report.
He said that owing to the volume of report requests over the last few weeks the probation service had been unable to cope with the demand, due to the number of staff assigned to the Crown Court.
He said he had no criticism of the senior probation officer in the building who had tried to get some cases re-listed but he had not been told about the problems in this case.
Judge Duncan said: "Sadly this is not the first time this has happened."
During the hearing, he pointed out that the period from March 8 to April 25 was seven weeks and that while looking back in his diary found details of two cases which were before him on April 5 and April 6.
He was told in those cases reports would not be ready until May 25 and May 26. Another case from April 6, where the defendant is in custody, has been listed for Friday.
Judge Duncan said: "I accept the probation officers in this building and those at the sharp end are working their socks off and I intend absolutely no criticism of those hard-working folk."
The volume of cases going through the court has increased by 48%, which Judge Duncan said puts a great burden on the probation service.
He said: "I fear, I don't know, but those in authority could be asked, that the number of probation officers available to do the work in the Crown Court is not increasing.
"Indeed, I suspect over the last ten years or so it has diminished and it is something I have been concerned about for a good deal of time because while defendants are not necessarily those who command sympathy and votes they are nevertheless entitled to be dealt with fairly.
"Judges and barristers should not be expected to retain information in their heads and get rusty because of the delays."
He added: "None of that is the fault of the probation officers, who do the hard work but it seems there may be misplaced resources or not enough resources available at the sharp end.
"Whether the administration is soaking it up I know not but it is clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs."
He said that he had been told last week that the problem had been semi-solved and more recent dates were now being given.
Judge Duncan said that new legislation on sentencing would mean more and more reliance on the probation service, but he added that it was no good if there were not enough staff to put the proposals into place.
Leading criminal barrister Ian Harris said the problem was not just affecting the smooth running of the courts.
He spoke of a case last week when a youth in custody was made to wait five weeks for his report to come through.
Mr Harris, who normally prosecutes higher profile cases where probation reports are not necessary, said: "I had no idea you had to wait so long now.
"We used to expect a report back in two to three weeks.
"The problem now is we have convicted people not knowing their ultimate fate.
"There's a certain irony in that because there are more people in custody waiting for their sentences, the probation service has more people to deal with in prisons.
"One of the problems is that because there are so many people in prisons it is taking longer to process the reports.
"They do an invaluable job but more funds need to be made available to employ more probation officers to process the reports."
Andrew Stelman, assistant chief probation officer at the national probation service headquarters in Merseyside, admitted there had been a problem.
He blamed a new case management system at the court that meant the number of requests for reports had increased by 48% in January 2005 compared to 2004 and by 55% in February, 2005, compared to the previous year.
He said the service had now pledged to get waiting times for reports down to two weeks for defendants on remand, and three weeks for those on bail.
However, he admitted it remained to be seen what the impact of the new CJA would be on the workload.
He added: "I'm confident that the waiting time for reports will reduce.
"It hasn't happened yet as we have only just agreed it."
Merseyside probation service currently has 13 members of staff, eight writing reports and five who attend court.
The service did recruit one new officer to help cope with the increased demand, but she went off sick with stress before she took up the post.
Mr Stelman said he would have to "wait and see" what impact the new CJA would have on the system before he could comment on whether it would slow down the system any further.
The probation service is funded by the national probation directorate and the Home Office.