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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 340-354)


24 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q340  Julie Morgan: What training do your prosecutors have to enable them to recognise this and also generally working with witnesses and vulnerable victims?

  Keir Starmer: We have training for all of our prosecutors on working with victims and witnesses, in particular on special measures. As I say, in the first instance it is for the police to identify those cases, but we do get the opportunity ourselves to consider whether there should be special measures, so we do have that in place.

  Q341  Julie Morgan: Finally, the Prosecutors' Pledge. How does this actually work? Does every prosecutor refer to this at every point in the work?

  Keir Starmer: It is a core document and it is an important document, and it is a pledge which we operate to. When there are a million cases plus going through the system there are bound to be cases where there are possible shortcomings and we are aware of that, but it is a pledge. It is a pledge that we take seriously. There is on an area by area basis a number of targets which were specifically about victims and witnesses, so we hold the areas accountable for their record on victims and witnesses and we do monitor how well they do. I am not going to pretend there are no cases that ever fall through the netting, but it is a really serious pledge that we take. The point in the delivery unit is, as it were, to make sure the pledge and the practice marry up because we are well aware of the criticism of any organisation, "You've got glorious pledges but it doesn't match up with what's happening on the ground," and the delivery unit is intended to ensure that the focus is on delivery.

  Q342  Dr Palmer: Just a silly question. The Prosecutor's Pledge reminds me a bit of the mission statements my old company used to produce and I know that many people who worked for the company had never read the mission statement. Are you confident that every prosecutor has read the prosecutor's pledge?

  Keir Starmer: I would hope they have. I could not say—

  Q343  Dr Palmer: Do you send it to every prosecutor?

  Keir Starmer: Well, they all do have access to it. We have been, as I have said, going round all of the areas. It is an intense piece of work from January to April, seeing as many staff as possible, and we have seen hundreds of staff. We have always insisted that the staff who are closest to witnesses and victims speak to us and we have organised for them to do so in groups where they feel able to do so openly. Undoubtedly, they are working really hard on this issue. They are really proud of what they do and so are the rest of the staff in the area. So it is something that they really take pride in and they do get positive feedback on the individual cases and they like that. They are more frustrated than anybody else when things go wrong in the system that frustrates the work they have been doing. When a case is adjourned where they work hard with the victim and the witness to try and get them to court and reassure them, they are really frustrated that all their work appears to have come to nought. So I cannot say that everybody has read every document and could recite it as a moment's notice, but I do really get a sense that it is really taken seriously and is recognised to be central, and rightly.

  Dr Palmer: Would it be a fair summary to say that you feel the spirit of the pledge infuses the organisation but the actual pledge itself has not necessarily been -

  Q344  Chairman: Dr Palmer is offering you a lifeline! Just say yes, I think.

  Keir Starmer: Yes.

  Q345  Chairman: Just a couple of specific points. One is, how would you respond to concerns that the CPS has an "institutional reluctance", two words which were used to us, to see people with mental health problems as credible witnesses?

  Keir Starmer: I do not think it is an institutional reluctance. We do recognise this is a really serious issue. We have devised policy which is being consulted on at the moment and we work with a number of other agencies with a specialist interest such as MIND and Scope on this, so I do not think it is institutional, but we have made mistakes and we accept that.

  Q346  Chairman: One of the things the CPS has done under your predecessor, quite deliberately, is to increase the amount of in-house advocacy and of course there are arguments from Criminal Bar practitioners about the merits of this. I just wanted to put this question to you: are you satisfied that the commitment of resources devoted to advocacy has not undermined your ability to engage in case preparation as an organisation?

  Keir Starmer: I have no evidence to suggest that is the case, so I have every confidence.

  Q347  Chairman: You intend to continue with the policy of developing in-house advocacy?

  Keir Starmer: Yes.

  Q348  Chairman: Is there an optimum level it should reach?

  Keir Starmer: There has been much discussion about percentages, both before this Committee and elsewhere. My priority is delivering a first-class Prosecution Service. Percentages and levels are secondary to that. Having said that, we do have a large number of in-house barristers and solicitors who have rights of audience and the rights of audience they exercise in the CPS are no different from the rights of audience they would be entitled to exercise if they were in-house in any other organisation or if they were solicitors in a solicitors' firm. That is a really important point to appreciate because if we did not allow them to exercise their rights we would be restricting what they could do if they were acting elsewhere and we would find it difficult to attract the very best if we restricted what they could do with us in a way which was not restricted in another organisation.

  Chairman: I think Mr Heath has a wider point he wants to raise.

  Q349  Mr Heath: Yes. It is a question, Mr Starmer, which relates to you and your specific position and the relationship with the Attorney General. You will know that there has been concern expressed on a number of occasions about the duality of the Attorney General's position both within Government and as a law officer. There are certain decisions which are left to the Attorney General by statute. Are there circumstances in which you would make a recommendation to the Attorney General that it would be appropriate for her to leave a decision on prosecution to yourself rather than take it as Attorney General?

  Keir Starmer: Well, the current Attorney General has made it clear that she does not want an involvement in individual cases in the vast majority of cases. So she has deliberately distanced herself from decision making in any individual cases and so there is a clear understanding that the decisions of the CPS are made independently of her. That is not to say there would not be consultation if a particular case was sensitive or had a high public interest factor, but it would be consultation. There is a small group of exceptional cases where national security is in play, where the Attorney General has, obviously, a much more hands-on role and/or where she has under legislation a power of consent where she is required by law to exercise that consent. But the current arrangement is that she will not be involved in the vast majority of cases.

  Q350  Mr Heath: I am thinking of the difficult cases where there might be a view that the Attorney General's position within the Government might prejudice her position in respect of a decision on prosecution. Would there be any circumstances whereby you would say you would advise the Attorney General that this is an inappropriate place for her to exercise her statutory discretion?

  Keir Starmer: Most of that is best put, I think, to the Attorney General. Where she has a statutory function it is not really for me to advise her about the exercise of it, although she consults us on the exercise of it. But if it is a statutory function, it is a statutory function. In sensitive cases we would discuss the best way forward.

  Mr Heath: Thank you.

  Q351  Chairman: I have been reminded that one of the issues that was also raised by us in evidence was the differences in, as it were, the standard of service to the police in charging, and of course you have two different systems. You have, as it were, a daytime system and an out of hours system. Do you believe that there are still significant disparities in the efficiency and quality of the charging service provided to the police and that either of these two systems has particular merits that recommend its wider use?

  Keir Starmer: Can I just get some context to this? This was a really big change in the criminal justice system and in the relationship between the police and the CPS. It is still relatively early days. The power was altered in 2003 but roll-out was 2006. It is right to say that the initial focus was area-based with the emphasis on face to face charging advice, backed up by CPS Direct, a telephone service out of hours. That was rolled out ahead of time, but there is this factor, that it was expected that the CPS would be handling about 260,000 cases for decision. In fact we handle over half a million, about 550,000 cases, so it is more than it was thought would be the case. There are some very good early indicators and for me the most important one is the decline in the discontinuance rate, down I think from 36% to 13% and that is really important. We have been talking about victims and witnesses. Every case that is discontinued has an impact on them and to get that number down is really important. It has massive resource implications because we will have prepared all those cases and the courts will have had to handle them, so there are some really good positive results and I can say, if you have not been to the areas, locally the police and our staff say the relationship between them and the police is much better. Because they are liaising without charging they are in contact with each other and they are very obviously driving towards the same target. Now, it is true that there have been some issues about how quick the service is being provided in some areas and whether face to face is the appropriate way forward or whether telephone advice is the way forward. That is an issue we have grappled with with the police. Throughout all of this this has been a joint initiative and we have put in place the modernising charging programme, which is intended to ensure 24/7 access by the police to charging advice from duty prosecutors and predominantly that will be on the telephone but with the ability to have face to face contact for the more serious complicated cases where there is real value added in that. I do not think it is a one-size-fits-all across all areas because geography and the profile varies enormously from area to area, but there is this important initiative driven—and this is the important thing—by a standard. This is something which should be simply driven by standards, in our view, this quality of charging decision within this timeframe for the following sorts of cases, 24/7 access. The police and the CPS are working jointly on this to solve the difficulties and I am sure we are going to do so.

  Q352  Julie Morgan: It has been put to me that the telephone advice offered out of hours, in particular for sensitive cases of domestic abuse or sexual abuse, has not always taken into account the vulnerable nature of the victims and the advisor has not necessarily had the specialist knowledge which a specialist domestic violence prosecutor, for example.

  Keir Starmer: Yes. What I say in response to that is something I will say in response to many questions when things are said that this is not done as well as it could be, and that is that it is always important to bear in mind we are an inspected organisation, there is rigorous on-going inspection and therefore everything we do is looked at in considerable detail, and we welcome that. That is exactly as it should be. It is very positive and we learn a lot from it, but we are inspected and there was a joint inspection on charging by the inspectorate and the HMI and they produced a report and it commented favourably on the quality of CPS Direct. It is difficult to deal with suggestions that have not been looked at in that way, but there was a very extensive inspection, and a good thing too, and on CPS Direct it was a positive inspection report.

  Q353  Julie Morgan: I can only say what has been reported to me.

  Keir Starmer: I appreciate that and I am not saying there is nothing in it at all. It is just very difficult to deal with that. It crops up in advocacy as well, but it is important to step back and say, "This is an inspected organisation that, as it were, opens its books and everything is looked at in individual cases." That is a really good thing because it identifies good practice and shortcomings but it is also a very good defence for us because we are able to say, "We are looked at and if you want to know how we operate, look at our internal reviews and look at the external inspection." It is difficult to deal with information which may be right or wrong from other individuals about particular cases that fall outside of that.

  Q354  Chairman: Finally, your predecessor has availed himself with some quite forthright views since he retired, but that would be a very unfair comment because in office he was quite prepared to set out his individual view of important matters of public policy affecting the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I just give one example. He gave quite a clear view about what he saw as the potential benefits of the use of interceptor's evidence. He did not feel restrained from giving a view about that. Are you going to be a bureaucratic spokesman of a collectively agreed organisation or do you see the office of DPP as one which positively invites and encourages a forthright statement of what the holder believes is in the public interest?

  Keir Starmer: The latter. For evidence, see the decision on assisted suicide, which turned on the public interest. We said we are going to be modern and we said we are going to be transparent and be a leader in the criminal justice system. For that reason, we put our reasoning into the public domain so that everybody could see it, comment on it and hold us to account. So I would take the same forthright approach. I hope and trust there is already evidence that that is the way I intend to lead the CPS.

  Chairman: Mr Starmer and Mr Lewis, thank you both very much indeed.

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