The Crown Prosecution Service: Gatekeeper of the Criminal Justice System - Justice Committee Contents


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 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 prosecutor's role in relation to victims also seems to be generally misunderstood. The prosecutor is not able to be an advocate for the victim in the way that the defence counsel is for the defendant, yet government proclamations that the prosecutor is the champion of victims' rights may falsely give this impression. Much of the prosecutor's work by its nature serves the needs of victims, and we should strive for a better service to victims, but there needs to be a better understanding of what it is possible for the prosecutor to be and to do in relation to victims.

In this report the Committee highlights the importance of the prosecutor to the criminal justice system, seeks to shed some light on what the role of the prosecutor should be, and considers alternatives to the present structures.

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Prepared 6 August 2009