Committee reviews the Crown Prosecution Service

06 August 2009

A Justice Committee report commends the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for its collaborative working with the police, but raised concerns about a series of issues including consistency and the piecemeal way in which its functions are developing

The Justice Committee report also states concerns about the increasing use of conditional cautions, the lack of an effective complaints system, and the proportion of cases taken by in-house advocates.

It goes on to say that the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) need to show clear leadership in defining the role of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system.

The Committee welcomes CPS efforts to engage better with victims and witnesses, and calls for a major effort to do this consistently, but the Report says that government proclamations that the prosecutor is the champion of victims' rights are "a damaging misrepresentation of reality" and risk raising expectations which will "inevitably be disappointed".

The CPS, says the report, should be an independent arbiter representing the public as a whole rather than individuals. The Committee was "deeply concerned" that victims and witnesses with mental health problems were often not recognised by prosecutors to be potentially credible witnesses, or provided with special measures to enable them to do so.

The Committee says people do not have a clear picture of the place of the Crown Prosecution Service within the criminal justice system. Historically it has been seen as the minor partner, the handmaiden, to other organisations such as the police. In reality, the decisions made by prosecutors are pivotal. They are the gatekeepers, determining which cases go forward into the system to be prosecuted at public expense.

The role of the prosecutor is central to the criminal justice system, yet the role has only developed incrementally over time, in response to specific challenges, rather than with clear expectations or direction. Fundamental changes have been made to the prosecutor’s role and how it relates to other parts of the criminal justice system, but the Committee says it does not appear that this happens as part of an overall vision.

The CPS has, amongst other things, taken on responsibility for decisions about charging, a power formerly belonging to the police, and gained powers to recommend conditional cautions, arguably giving it the function of a sentencer. Thus the prosecutor’s role seems to be defined by what it takes away from others, rather than having a proactively defined strategic place in the criminal justice system.

The Committee commented on the wide range of organisations with prosecution powers, including the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities, but said:

"We have not come to the conclusion that England and Wales should move towards the Scottish model of a single prosecuting authority. We believe that there are more pressing priorities for CPS management than such a major change, but, given the diverse structure of prosecuting authorities, we regard co-ordination and the sharing of best practice as essential".

On the use of salaried CPS advocates, an issue raised by the Criminal Bar Association in a recent report, the Committee said:

"We do not dismiss the anecdotal concerns raised from a number of quarters about the quality of CPS advocates and the systems for their deployment, such as allegations that complex cases are dumped on self-employed barristers at short notice, but regard this as evidence of a need for better case management by the CPS, rather than providing a general argument against CPS advocacy.

"We welcome the Chief Inspector’s reports into CPS advocacy and case preparation and the evidence basis this provides for developing the quality of CPS advocacy and ensuring effective systems across the CPS to support this, and we look forward to considering the responses of the CPS and the Bar."

Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:

"The Crown Prosecution Service has come a long way since the early days in which it was much criticised, but it has taken on wider responsibilities, particularly in areas like conditional cautions, without there being a clear understanding of its role. It also has a difficult balance to strike between being a local community service with local discretion and a service which has central direction to maintain standards and ensure consistency. As the gatekeeper of the criminal justice system it needs to be robustly independent."

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