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

4  Consistency and local discretion

104.  One theme that has echoed and re-echoed through the different elements of discussion on the role of the prosecutor is that of consistency. Stephen Wooler told us "The area where the CPS needs to improve most is in securing greater consistency across the organisation in its systems and procedures".[231]

105.  We heard the same message for those talking on behalf of people who received a service from the CPS, who worked with the CPS or who worked for the CPS. Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Victim Support, said:

"a key theme running through what I want to say on behalf of victims and witnesses would be about inconsistency and about the differences of approach and a lot of dependency on action of individuals and personalities as opposed to being able to understand the system in full".[232]

Tim Godwin, speaking for ACPO, told us: "One of the big issues … is consistency".[233] Christine Haswell, from PCS, the public service union representing approximately 3,000 individuals working at the CPS stated: "One of the things that does hit me about the service is that it is not necessarily always one service".[234]

106.  Stephen Wooler suggested that one of the problems was in sustaining and embedding work when new initiatives came along:

"one of the features [of the treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system] has been the development of good policies; the need to embed those policies at frontline level has often not been as successful in the longer term as it might have been. One of the features across the criminal justice system when we are looking at national initiatives is that because there has been such an emphasis on improving criminal justice, initiatives, when they are new, tend to be successful. As managers turn their attention to other things, then the eye goes off the ball".[235]

Other witnesses told us that there were often good policies but these were not always implemented consistently on the ground. PCS told us: "The thing with the CPS, I have found, is … a lot of good policies and good working practices, in theory, but sometimes the actual application varies tremendously".[236]

107.  The theme of inconsistency may be linked to tension over the extent to which the CPS is a national or a local service. The Director of Public Prosecutions talked about the balance:

"At the national level there must be common priorities, common standards, common targets and common policies. So that runs right through the organisation nationally… It is delivered locally … You have got to have an appropriate leader at the appropriate place to plug into the criminal justice system as a whole… It is not like Tesco where there is one product which is simply being sold in different areas. The area has to operate in accordance with other agencies".[237]

This is a theme that goes back to the creation of the CPS. Sir Cyril Philips recommended in his report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice that the CPS should be "locally based, but with certain national features".[238] A national CPS was created following his report. Rt Hon Sir Iain Glidewell, in his 1998 review of the CPS reiterated, however, that "the prosecution process is essentially local in nature".[239]

108.  The Attorney General talked about how national standards fit with community responsiveness:

"I think we do have to have clear standards which are applied everywhere, but how we deliver for a community will be very much shaped by the needs of that community".[240]

She saw community engagement as a key part of the decision-making process:

"Prosecutors need also to engage with their communities to ensure that their public interest decisions are properly informed by the public's concern about crime".[241]

In April 2009 the Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice Green Paper committed to the introduction of 'community prosecutors' in 30 pathfinder areas in 2009-10. The community prosecutor approach is designed to "enhance the service the CPS provides to local people and the visibility of its work".[242]

109.  Catherine Lee, of the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, suggested that the CPS's community role grew out of work it had already started, engaging with wider stakeholders:

"In recent years the CPS has become really good at looking at domestic violence and rape and adopting a scrutiny panel approach to that and a much more specialist approach to how to deal with victims and prosecute cases. I think the time has come when one applies that kind of approach to looking at community issues and working closely with the police in charging suites but also at neighbourhood policing team level to try to understand the background to what a community is experiencing and suffering and so help to inform charging or other disposal decisions".[243]

Some witnesses commended the CPS's approach to equality issues. Help the Aged commented

"We believe the strong commitment to equality amongst senior leaders in the CPS has been a key factor in ensuring the success of the organisation's equality scheme… we believe the CPS should be commended for its positive approach to equality issues".[244]

Mind said "Mind has had positive discussions with the CPS about greater involvement of people with mental distress in its business planning".[245] Nevertheless, it and other organisations emphasised that there was still a way to go. For example, the National Secular Society suggested a problem for the CPS in joining up with people who did not have an established community to represent them, such as "people who keep their faith in the private realm or who are of no faith at all".[246]

110.  Such debates identify a tension for the CPS in providing a consistent national service whilst being responsive at a local level to communities and particular circumstances. It is also part of the ongoing development of the role of the prosecutor. John Kennedy, Office of Criminal Justice Reform, spoke about delivery of cross criminal justice targets on reducing antisocial behaviour:

"The approach has widened the view of the prosecutor… in terms of antisocial behaviour the CPS is currently working in providing specialist prosecutors in a number of areas to ensure there is specialist advice about the nature of the law of disorder and the possible remedies to which it can respond".[247]

111.  This opens up questions about two key elements in the role of the prosecutor. The first is how the role of the prosecutor contributes to aims of the criminal justice system such as reducing re-offending. The Attorney General linked the prosecutor's gatekeeping role to this aim: "it has been very, very important for us to get the correct level of charging and that we intervene at an appropriate level to reduce the likelihood of re-offending".[248] The DPP also saw tackling crime and re-offending as an "essential function" of the prosecutor, to be achieved in the first place through the CPS engaging with communities.[249] Another element touched upon by John Kennedy is the facility of the CPS to provide legal advice to the police and more widely. Nicola Padfield suggested that the CPS is doing this beyond the area of Anti-Social Behaviour, and said that the CPS website is "particularly impressive: openly providing guidance in areas of law which Parliament has somewhat irresponsibly cloaked in fog".[250]

112.  The contribution from the Crown Prosecution Service to the broader criminal justice system aims of reducing re-offending is matched by its contribution to broader aims such as the efficiency of the criminal justice system. The 1997 Persistent Young Offender pledge, to reduce the time taken between arrest and conviction for young offenders, sought in part to reduce re-offending through timeliness (confronting young offenders with the consequences of their actions quickly to help address their offending behaviour positively) as well as reduce delays, and therefore improve the experience, for victims and the public and thereby costs to criminal justice agencies.[251] The Magistrates' Association considered the role of the CPS in both this and the introduction of CJSSS (Criminal Justice Simple, Speedy, Summary); their concern was that limitations on prosecutorial resources would risk timeliness gains to the system:

"We are anxious that, if crime increases during the current recession, the provision of speedy justice in our courts gained through the introduction of CJSSS (Criminal Justice Simple Speedy Summary) and the Persistent Young Offender project are not eroded due to a shortage of funds for prosecutors". [252]

113.  An important aspect to consider in relation to developments to the role of the prosecutor is whether resources are available. The Attorney General commented that "one has to remember that the prosecutors are a relatively small group".[253] Stakeholders were concerned about the pressures of trends in the criminal justice system. ACPO noted: "the problem lies in the capacity. Convictions and trials are going up in large parts of England and Wales and the fiscal settlement for the CPS will make that challenging".[254]

114.  Inconsistency in CPS delivery was a clear theme in the evidence we received and must be tackled. Failures to define clearly the role of the prosecutor, and the pressures pushing and pulling it in different directions, militate against priorities for consistent delivery. The definition of a clear role should include the CPS's contribution to the overall aims and delivery of an effective criminal justice system. The development of community prosecutors is a further fundamental change to what we expect from prosecutors in the criminal justice system, raising questions about what kind of local discretion is desirable and beneficial to the public interest. The Attorney General should make a clear statement of how local responsiveness can be made compatible with the demands of natural justice for system-wide consistency.

231   Q 254 Back

232   Q 123 Back

233   Q 41 Back

234   Q 119 Back

235   Q 261 Back

236   Q 119 Back

237   Q 328 Back

238   Sir Cyril Philips, Report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, January 1981, Cmnd. 8092-I, para 9.4 Back

239   Sir Iain Glidewell, Summary of The Review of the Crown Prosecution Service, June 1998, CM 3960, para 10 Back

240   Q 379 Back

241   Ev 62 Back

242   Criminal Justice System, Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice, April 2009, Cm 7583, para 13 Back

243   Q 60 Back

244   Ev 88 Back

245   Ev 94 Back

246   Ev 102 Back

247   Q 49 Back

248   Q 377 Back

249   Q 298 Back

250   Ev 100 Back

251 Back

252   Ev 89 Back

253   Q 372 Back

254   Q 43 Back

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Prepared 6 August 2009