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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 40-59)


20 JANUARY 2009

  Q40  Chairman: In office hours CPS makes charging decisions?

  Tim Godwin: Yes. There may be two or three offenders who are ready for charge at the same time and when you have charging lawyers in police stations it is about getting access to them to make the charging decision. As a result, Peter Lewis as chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service and ACPO are piloting a CPS Direct enhanced service which means access 24/7. We use the virtual court technologies to which I am sure the Committee is alive in terms of collaborative space. Technically, that enables us to have a single file in a number of places so the prosecutor can see the file; it does not have to be in the police station. We have the file and can amend it at the same time. We can have face-to-face contact through virtual conference facilities. That is the answer to the issue of charging. It makes us far more efficient and means that we can access those services quite quickly, whereas the current system is inefficient because it relies on lawyers being present at the time.

  Q41  Julie Morgan: You raised the issue of having a more efficient system. You also said that there was the occasional rub when you felt that the decision was different from what you would have wished. Does that happen very often?

  Tim Godwin: Yes, and for the police it can give rise to a bit of a myth, in that the reason detection and commission rates go down is that we cannot get a charge out of the CPS. Generally, when that happens I ask the officers in my command to send me the files so I can assess whether they are accurate in terms of the quality of the evidence or otherwise. Generally speaking, I end up deciding that probably the CPS has got it right. That arises sometimes but it is a relationship issue. You have a passionate, enthusiastic police service that wants to do something and as a result the CPS quite rightly challenges it and says that a little more evidence is needed. One of the big issues of which I am sure the CPS is aware, because I have had conversations with Peter Lewis about it, is consistency. The Police Service has a lot of very young officers with varying skill and experience in various places. The CPS is no different from that. I believe that with a virtual charging centre where you have a specific number of experienced lawyers to make decisions on charging there will be a far more consistent outcome and, as a result, we can plan evidence quality. One needs to address inconsistencies as between lawyer A and lawyer B as to whether, for example, a fingerprint needs corroborative evidence, but I am confident that that work is being done. There are three pilot areas and I hope that that will roll out quite quickly.

  Q42  Julie Morgan: How have you adjusted to the statutory charging scheme?

  Tim Godwin: That is really what I am talking about here. Initially, as far as the Police Service was concerned it was felt that it could not be trusted, but when you look at the discontinuance rates we had at the time as far as efficiency was concerned the necessary relationship between the service and the CPS was not there in terms of victims. Since then the outcomes show that whilst the number of charges has fallen numerically convictions have increased, so on that data we are getting better judgments in terms of outcomes which must be good for victims and witnesses. But one of the challenges identified in Flanagan was the difference between us in terms of performance regimes. An example of that would be lawyer A with 100 burglary files who charges all of them and gets 60 convictions and lawyer B with the same number of burglary files who charges 10 and gets 10 convictions. For the Police Service lawyer A is the better lawyer; for the CPS lawyer B is the better one because at that point it is based on conviction rates. That issue is identified in Flanagan. We are adjusting performance regimes so they are compatible and so we acknowledge discontinuance and efficiency but at the same time it is about bringing the guilty to justice. That will never be clear; there will always be grey areas, but it is a journey we are making together.

  Q43  Chairman: Earlier we heard how the procurator fiscal in Scotland directed the police. He would say there would be no point in seeing this witness and they should see that witness or pursue this but not that evidence. Does ACPO have a view about moving to that kind of system? Do you have a personal view? I imagine that many police officers have a view about it. It is a system that is very long-established and clearly functions efficiently in Scotland.

  Tim Godwin: In terms of serious crime it is a matter of common practice in the Police Service to bring in the CPS early in the investigation so they can give advice and guidance in terms of where the line of inquiry may go and what is needed to get to the point of charge. Therefore, for homicide, rape and crimes of that kind we would have that sort of contact. As to the more "volume" crimes probably the capability of CPS would be sorely tested to achieve that. I believe that in the case of those crimes the Police Service is quite capable of making those sorts of choices and decisions in the investigation, but in the case of serious crimes there is collaboration prior to charge. Having been on the street crime initiative that led to the National Criminal Justice Board, many moons ago I recall getting some feedback from the Civil Service. That came from the lady sitting on my right. Following a walk-through of the failures of the criminal justice system in terms of robbery offenders, the advice was that prosecution started before charge and investigation continued after it. That has stuck in my mind ever since. Therefore, there is a role for the prosecutor to become involved before charge, but it depends on the level of offence, the level of detail and how much it is direction or advice. I believe that advice is right, but 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.

  Q44  Chairman: Are you saying that in those areas where there is such closeness at an early stage there is not that big a difference? Although it is called "advice" in England and "direction" in Scotland you have more or less got to take the advice; otherwise, you will not get your prosecution or you will be wasting your time, whereas in Scotland there is a clear power to direct. But it also has resource implications. If the prosecution say to you that you must interview 10 more witnesses, as the fiscal can say to the police in Scotland—presumably, they must be accustomed to dealing with this—do you see it as a resource problem?

  Tim Godwin: We do see it as a potential resource problem. As to the difference, in terms of direction, ie who is in charge of the investigation, we see ourselves as accountable in court for it, but there is a need to operate as a team and so we work very closely together to achieve the same objective which is to obtain a charge when one is appropriate.

  Q45  Chairman: Before I ask Dr Whitehead to ask some questions, this may be the opportunity for Catherine Lee to make her opening statement about the work in which she is engaged.

  Catherine Lee: John Kennedy and I work in the Office for Criminal Justice Reform which is a relatively new organisation that reports to the three ministers responsible for overseeing the criminal justice system. It was very much born out of a feeling that the system needed to be better joined up which is why we have trilateral reporting arrangements. We support the National Criminal Justice Board which has on it the heads of all the agencies that make up the criminal justice system, ministers and senior advisers. They set the general direction which is underpinned by a public service agreement target called Justice For All, but delivery is absolutely down to local criminal justice boards of which there are 42. Those are coterminous with police force areas. Our task in the Office for Criminal Justice Reform is very much to work with criminal justice boards, both with chairs such as Tim Godwin and other members but crucially with their support teams, to try to enhance their capability to understand and prioritise their local business, respond to the needs of their communities and meet the targets set across the whole system.

  Q46  Dr Whitehead: I should like to move directly from that description of how management moves from national level to the 42 local criminal justice boards. I think this is a question for all the witnesses. How would you describe the relationship between the police at local level, the CPS and the boards themselves? How does that work in practice, and what issues have arisen in terms of that relationship?

  Catherine Lee: I think that at approximately the time local criminal justice boards were set up statutory charging came into being which encouraged the new prosecution team ethos to which Tim Godwin referred. It was a time when the CPS and the police were beginning to develop a closer, though still properly independent, relationship with each other and to work on a number of initiatives not just statutory charging but, crucially, as another lesson we learnt from the street crime initiative, the importance of providing really consistent and strong support to witnesses going through the system. Another example of how the CPS and the police work together is the setting up of witness care units to provide single points of contact post-charge right through to post-conviction. There are all sort of other areas in which they work together. I believe the establishment of the local criminal justice boards at that time encouraged and enhanced the prosecution team ethos because it provided an environment whereby they were coming together anyway but with their wider partners across the whole system, typically meeting every month or six weeks. Not only is it important because they then share the agenda and decide collectively what their priorities are at the table, but there is an awful lot of less formal stuff that goes on at those meetings at the margin which encourages that kind of joint approach. Importantly, that comes from the very top at local area level and we hope that that is transmitted down to the charging suites and witness care units. This is an ethos that has been evolving over the past five years and has now reached a good point, though there are still rubbing points as Tim Godwin highlights.

  Tim Godwin: For me, the initial challenge was to understand each other, to understand that we had common objectives and the key issues where we could work better in collaboration to achieve the same outcomes. That has now shifted. There is understanding in the vast majority of cases. There is still the odd relationship issue in the 42 locations between the chief crown prosecutor and the chief constable, but in the vast majority of cases those relationships are forged through the criminal justice boards. We see that now far more criminal justice boards at local level take charge of the agenda as opposed to being directed through the NCJB and OCJR. There will be tension between the local perspective and national perspective which we are going to resolve at a strategic level. The other point is that obvious areas of waste within the criminal justice system are overcome only by joint planning. One of the key challenges in that regard is that sometimes the cost will arise in one agency and the benefit in another. I believe that swapping the benefit with the cost across agencies is a challenge that many of us must overcome. For example, across the country the CPS and the police operate two separate files which is inappropriate in any event in terms of evidence. In London we now go to a single file which we call an integrated prosecution team. It means that post-charge I do not need criminal justice units and I can reinvest in prisoner process units to get police officers back out of cell blocks quickly, and I can clear up the stuff around criminal injuries compensation by investment and cash savings by paying money to the Crown Prosecution Service to do a single file and cover my work as well as theirs after charge, which is totally appropriate. That is a big cultural change in terms of putting the money across.

  Q47  Chairman: You pay them to do that?

  Tim Godwin: Yes. That saves the police authority a significant amount of money. It reimburses them for the work they need to do. It also means that we are far more collaborative in terms of planning. That will also come into the court service. We have to be careful of the judiciary and its independence. Equally, in terms of the court service the benefits of virtual courts, court closures and things like that are a challenge for anyone to talk about. Those issues become very political but will have to be addressed and I think that is the next iteration of the debate at criminal justice board level as we move on. I can see some significant efficiencies to be gained there together with speed in obtaining justice. In trying to keep a victim motivated and informed there is nothing worse than having a date set for trial that is nine months hence. We need to get down all those trial times, and in the virtual court of which we have a prototype working with the CPS and the court service our first client was arrested for domestic violence at 12 and was convicted and in Brixton prison at five the same day, and for the victim it was a significantly different experience from the ones before. That is the sort of thing we can do when we work together effectively.

  Q48  Dr Whitehead: Is the downside to that that whilst there are benefits in having an agreed process agencies may start vying for work, as it were, in that they work closely together in the local board and then say they can do this and that and there is a contested area of overlap of work, or a contest for work which is not an agreed process, and therefore is not necessarily one that leads automatically to the sort of outcomes you describe?

  Tim Godwin: I think that would occur if you did not have clear objectives to achieve. At the moment I do not think any of us vies for more work, but it could well arise as you start to process it as a business. You need to be businesslike but it is not a business in terms of trying to get more contracts to increase your size or whatever. At the moment we still have too long a time for our trials. We have a national effectiveness rating—it is slightly higher in London—in terms of confidence. As to effectiveness, nationally 37% of those citizens asked believe we are effective; it is 56% in terms of fairness. That is a big challenge. At the moment the focus is on ensuring people see that we become far more effective, dynamic and quicker and that we get consistency and all the rest of it. I have not experienced that yet. That is not to say it might not occur later, but probably there is a big journey before we get to that point.

  Q49  Dr Whitehead: I have a question for John Kennedy. The CPS has been given a particular role in pursuing the success of some public service agreements, particularly PSA23 which concerns antisocial behaviour and targets for reducing the number of people who perceive antisocial behaviour as a problem. How do you think the CPS has done in discharging that area of concern under those PSAs?

  John Kennedy: The CPS occupies an important role in terms of the delivery of both PSA23 and PSA24, and indeed PSA25 has an important relationship in how those agreements are delivered. The role of the CPS in terms of the PSA23 contribution is that the traditional approach of prosecution in terms of the position prior to statutory charging was that the CPS primarily received files from the police and at that point initiated the prosecution. As Tim Godwin described, they did not take a position before charge and were not encouraged to do so. The approach has widened the view of the prosecutor; it has widened the view to include aspects of PSA23, so 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. In terms of community justice which is another issue in the context of PSA23 the CPS has been working alongside community justice pilot areas offering a customised service that is supportive of those pilot arrangements. In the case of prolific and priority offenders the CPS was involved in the development of the policy in 2004 and is a key partner in terms of the fast-tracking of prolific and priority offenders through the criminal justice system. In terms of a number of aspects of PSA23 the CPS has occupied a key role and has been part of the team response required of a criminal justice system.

  Q50  Dr Whitehead: Would you describe that as a developing role and, if so, how do you think further improvements to it might be made?

  John Kennedy: The illustration of the position in London and the concept of the prosecution team, where in effect the police and prosecutor work more collaboratively together at an earlier stage in terms of investigation and evidence gathering, provide a very effective model in understanding how joint resources in times of straitened finances can be made to go further and be more effective whilst not necessarily reducing the quality of the outcomes.

  Q51  Chairman: Is this very much a London thing? Has it not been done much anywhere else?

  John Kennedy: In terms of development I believe that London has led on this. Tim Godwin in his ACPO role is perhaps better placed than me to comment on it.

  Tim Godwin: If we have a problem such as antisocial behaviour and gang-related crime we now have such a relationship with the criminal justice boards where we can have experienced lawyers attached to those units that tackle those issues, whether they be neighbourhood teams or specific gang task forces. They review the evidence and assisting us in terms of how we might make the criminal justice system effective in tackling those problems. I know that the intent is for the CPS to look at problem-solving or prosecutors will support the neighbourhood teams which are rolled out across the whole of England and Wales. This will be for England and Wales. It will support them to resolve specific problems in neighbourhoods where the CPS lawyer would become part of the group that looks at how to resolve it in the longer term. If Peter Lewis were here—I am always nervous about speaking for someone else—one of his concerns would be capacity in terms of the throughput of cases. Because we are becoming more effective in capturing offenders in the fiscal planning processes we will have to deliver the efficiencies to enable them to free up sufficient lawyers to do that effectively even for the whole of London. Therefore, in terms of the charging we mentioned before which will reduce the number of lawyers required the virtual court means that fewer prosecutors will be hanging around courts because they can do it virtually from Ludgate Hill or wherever. That will enable us to develop further the problem-solving neighbourhood prosecutor to work with the police to tackle the priorities that citizens have identified through the neighbourhood policing process.

  Q52  Alun Michael: I am wondering how to ask a question that relates what you have just been talking about to the next point. To say that I am struggling to understand how best to relate it may help you in answering it. It is about two and a half years since the publication by the then Department for Constitutional Affairs of Delivering Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice. I am sure the department must have spent months dreaming up that title. Looking at that, the aim was fairly clear; it was to look at the system and the courts in particular to ensure they were more responsive to concerns raised by local communities and to deal more speedily with low-level crime. In that sense it is very complementary to the agenda for the creation of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, things like ASBOs and so on. As I understand it, those proposals focus on magistrates courts. In the two and a half years since that publication to what extent has that approach become embedded? Is it working? Is that improved communication working in the way suggested at the time? As Obama is speaking at the moment, can you give us a state-of-the-nation update on that aspect of tackling local crime and disorder?

  Catherine Lee: It is perhaps not the snappiest of titles. It does do what it says on the pack. The focus was on trying to make the system proportionate, simple and speedy. It had become over-complicated particularly in magistrates courts. A lot of the panoply of the crown court procedural process had been put onto magistrates courts. Peter Lewis, who has been referred to already several times, plus colleagues from Her Majesty's Court Service went on a grand tour of various courts and were appalled at the number of adjournments simply because things were not ready. Pleas which should have been entered at a much earlier stage as guilty pleas were not happening because there was chaos. There were adjournments caused by both the defence and CPS and there was no grip taken by the court; it did not have the right information to take it. This process was very much a cross-agency matter and was led by local criminal justice boards. In every single area court teams got together; they brought together not just the police, CPS and HMCS staff but also judges, district judges, magistrates and crucially the defence to work out how they could better manage the system. As a result the figures show there has been a huge improvement—21%—in timeliness, which was critical, and a 30% improvement in adjournments. What we are looking at here is low-level offending that should be dealt with simply and speedily in the magistrates courts as a response to lots of low-level crime that is taking place in areas. In streamlining processes like that people gain confidence that the courts will deal with this and perhaps fewer out-of-court disposals are needed.

  Q53  Alun Michael: Can you help us with the figures? You said that there had been a 21% improvement in timeliness. What is the measure?

  Catherine Lee: I think the measure is the time taken from first hearing through to conviction.

  Q54  Alun Michael: So, there has been a 21% improvement in the overall time?

  Catherine Lee: Yes.

  Q55  Alun Michael: From the initial charge?

  Catherine Lee: I believe it is from the first hearing, but I have to check that.

  Q56  Alun Michael: It depends on how long the first hearing took. Perhaps you would clarify that for us.

  Catherine Lee: I will clarify it in writing[3].

  Q57 Alun Michael: You referred to 30%. Is that a 30% reduction in adjournments altogether?

  Catherine Lee: Yes.

  Q58  Alun Michael: That is quite significant.

  Catherine Lee: It is very significant. The reason why we really must press ahead with the streamlining process that has been referred to several times is that because we have got things into a much better state now in magistrates courts by saying that much more has to be done at the front end so that cases are trial ready at a much earlier stage it should not result in more unnecessary work for the police. As a result of that we are embarking on the work of streamlining the process, to which Tim Godwin has referred, to make sure that file preparation is proportionate and the police are not doing too much to get cases into an appropriate state of readiness to have an effective first hearing.

  Tim Godwin: In my view it is now embedded across all the areas in terms of the first hearing; that is, one hearing for guilty pleas and two for not guilty pleas. We review why we do not achieve that and learn from the experience where it is not achieved. When that was brought in it provided good evidence of the collaborative working referred to earlier. The Police Service, being a nervous bunch of people, anticipated being asked to do a lot of statements very quickly which would prove unnecessary in prosecuting cases—hence the debate with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions to get a streamlined process and, at the same time, still monitor guilty pleas and effective trial rates. The outcome for us is that in terms of charge to conviction the period has been reduced by about two weeks. We have asked for the six pilot areas now being undertaken to be rolled out across England and Wales, but we save 98 minutes of an officer's time. I do not know how they account for the eight minutes, but it is an hour and a half per guilty plea. Where we anticipate a guilty plea but it then becomes a not guilty plea the case file saves us 158 minutes in terms of the amount of paperwork time. That is really usable time—it is not 30 seconds—when police officers can go back out. We needed not just the CPS to change that and for lawyers to be briefed to accept it because it is summaries of evidence but also the judiciary to support the case management in magistrates courts. That was crucial. For example, why does one need a busy doctor to make a statement that a person had a bloody nose? Does not the photograph tell you that? That can be asked in the court at the point of taking the plea. Lord Justice Leverson as senior presiding judge spoke to all the bench chairs across England and Wales to point out their responsibility in supporting robust case management. The results have been pretty effective. As a result everyone is totally signed up to going further in understanding how it can be done better.

  Q59  Alun Michael: You heard in earlier evidence some concern about the pressure to meet targets, perhaps putting some decision-making at risk. Are you satisfied that so far that is not the case and there are sufficiently robust systems in place to avoid that sort of fraying at the edges which is a danger with any system that seeks to improve efficiency?

  Tim Godwin: I am satisfied that there are such safeguards. I think the fact that it has to go through the prosecutors and not just the police and all the rest of it means that those safeguards have been put in place. We are looking at what happens in terms of guilty plea changes et cetera and it is the same under the new system as it was under the old. Guilty pleas are probably improving. I believe that the safeguards are there because it goes through the court process.

3   Note by witness: Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary Performance (CJSSS). The statistics provided in the oral evidence session (p 32) relate to CJSSS cases, which are adult charge cases prosecuted by CPS/ Police, disposed of in the magistrates' court. They do not include summons cases or cases that are committed or sent to the Crown Court. These cases have had:-an estimated 21 per cent improvement in timelines from charge to completion in magistrates' courts (reduced from 61 days to 48 days);- an estimated 30% improvement in the average number of overall adjournments (reduced from an average of 1.93 adjournments per case to an average of 1.36 adjournments per case). The data comparison period in the Time Intervals Survey in September 2008 compared to the CJSSS baseline period, which is aggregated from the 4 quarterly surveys during the 12 months to March 2007. ( The Time Intervals Survey operates for one week in each calendar quarter and captures timeliness data on all relevant criminal cases completed in that week (the survey period is longer for youth cases). They are therefore "snapshot" estimates, rather than exact measures and are liable to function as a result of case mix changes and other external factors, as any snapshot survey would be. It is worth noting therefore that such changes in the results may not be similarly reflected in future Time Intervals Surveys. The result of the Time Intervals Survey are published in a national Statistics bulletin prepared by the Economic and Statistics division of the Ministry of Justice. Current and previous editions of the Time Intervals Survey bulletin can be found at intervals.htm) Back

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