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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 380-399)


10 MARCH 2009

  Q380  Julie Morgan: I wanted to ask you about the role of the victim and the Crown Prosecution Service's role in relation to the victim. Obviously your office and you think it is very important that the victim is at the heart of the criminal justice system.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Absolutely.

  Q381  Julie Morgan: Is there any conflict between taking the interests of the victim and deciding on a fair decision in law about whether to prosecute or not?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I do not think there is. I know that there was. You will know that one of the reasons in the past was that prosecutors were not even allowed to talk to victims; it was thought in some way that would pollute their independence and their judgment. We have clearly come to the view, from all the information, all the evidence we have, that that is not case; that you need to be able to really understand the quality of information that you are given so you can assess the case properly, so you can explain it to the court and so that the victim really is kept at the centre of the process. I think it gives them a better opportunity to make correct judgments. You will know that prosecutors now have a specific duty to make sure the court understands the impact of this particular offence on the victim. It does not mean that in any way it impacts negatively on the duty they have to be fair in relation to the defendant and only prosecute those things that are clearly merited both because they identify offences that have been committed, but, secondly, they come to the judgment that it is in the public interest. I think that allowing the prosecutor to be the gate keeper, to be the guardian of the public interest in that regard is really important, but that means representing all the public interest, which is the victims, the witnesses and the defendant, and that fairness is something which I think is central to the prosecutorial role.

  Q382  Julie Morgan: So you think the distress of the victim does not ever influence the decisions?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, I do not think it does, because if you look at the way in which it is structured, the investigative officer is normally the person who will do a lot of the work. There will be the victims and witness unit who will do some of it. The real advantage I think we have now is the fact that the victim, the witness, has an opportunity to speak to the prosecutor, but that does not mean that that will improperly influence the prosecutor, who has to do a totally professional job. I think if you talk to victims, the biggest thing they say that has made a difference is that somebody talks to them and explains why things have happened. Quite often people have felt very upset, very angry, not because what was done was wrong, but because they did not understand why it was being done and how it was going to be done, and I think that has been a very, very important shift. It is probably one of the most important differences that we have been able to deliver for victims, and I do not think there is any evidence that that has improperly influenced what happens to defendants; defendants have not been harmed or disadvantaged by allowing prosecutors to give that support to victims and witnesses.

  Q383  Julie Morgan: Have you done any research on that?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I do not know whether there is any specific research. I can only tell you the information that certainly I have been privileged to hear from victims. You will know that for four years I was the Minister at the Home Office specifically charged with the victims panel, and so I was there at the time when they were complaining bitterly that nobody spoke to them, and this was the worst thing that happened, and it was terrible and they felt left out, and I have been on that journey with them through to the position now where the same people said it is light years away from where it used to be and it is much better. They always say there is more for us to do, but the important thing is they are saying it is much better than it was.

  Q384  Dr Whitehead: In your evidence to the committee about the CPS, remarkable by its absence was any mention of complaints about the CPS. Does that imply that you are happy with how the procedures on complaints work at the moment as far as the CPS is concerned?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: You will know that there is at this very moment a review of the complaints procedure. I did not make any particular reference to that. I believe that the committee was aware that we were going through that process. Obviously, I am very happy to give the committee any information at the end of the review process in relation to the recommendations that will be made of that review. (Note to come)

  Q385  Dr Whitehead: That review is taking place in line with the comments of the recent inspector's report?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Absolutely.

  Q386  Dr Whitehead: And the concerns that are underlined there?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Yes.

  Q387  Dr Whitehead: So we can anticipate that that will perhaps be looked at cognitively as far as the review is concerned?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Certainly there was no resistance at all from the CPS in relation to accepting the recommendation that a review should be taking place. This is now underway. There will be a review, for instance, as to what role, if any, the Attorney General should play. You will know that at the moment the only role that the Attorney of the day would have is to look to see whether the process adopted in relation to the complaint was faithfully carried out. You do not look at the substance; you look at structure of the investigative process. All of that is under review. I am not sure, obviously, what the recommendations will be about how we should restructure, but I am very clear that the CPS, and I am sure if Keir Starmer was here, he would endorse that—

  Q388  Chairman: He is not.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: He is very keen to make sure that the complaints process is as robust as it reasonably can be, and I think that is very important.

  Q389  Mr Turner: What steps are you taking to ensure that there are consistent standards across public prosecutors (a) that you are going to superintend and (b) that you do not superintend?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: One of the things that came out of the review of the Attorney General's role and the prosecutorial role is that I came to clearly understand that there was a wider prosecutorial family which I did not superintend on a statutory basis, and it seemed to me that there was a huge amount for us to learn from each other. I also was somewhat surprised to discover that it was not usual for all of the prosecutors, not even the ones I statutorily superintend, to come together at one time to talk about common issues. Yet I was seeing them all individually and seeing that systematically there were clearly some joint issues that they would be benefiting from discussing. As a result, since I have become Attorney we have done a number of things. The first thing, as you will know from my evidence, is we have created a Strategic Board so that the prosecutors I do superintend, together with the other law officer's departments, the Treasury Solicitors, et cetera, can come together, but I also knew that the opportunities for prosecutors in different departments in Whitehall to come together was not as clear as it should be; so a number of things have happened. The first, as you know, in 1999 there was a decision that the Attorney General of the day should have regular meetings with the Whitehall prosecutors, and this has continued. I have also taken the opportunity to have a round table where all the prosecutors got together, and we were able to talk about some common themes and there are a number of common themes, which will—

  Q390  Mr Turner: Examples?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Discovery, procedural information, for instance, process. All the prosecutors will be subject to those, and we have done a number of things. There is a website, a government legal service website called LION. We have created a prosecutor's part of that website so they can exchange information, they can discover and discuss appropriate points of interest between them. We have also helped to enable them to share some of the work that is being undertaken by the prosecutors I do superintend statutorily, that is the CPS, who have produced some very good information, and we are looking now to see how prosecutors, the CPS and others, might perhaps be able to get access to LION. There is a real commonality in terms of the work that is undertaken through the Whitehall prosecutors, and I think that one of the more interesting opportunities we have had in the last 18 months is to see ourselves as a family of prosecutors. We have, I think, now got a joint vision, which is certainly a first, and you will know that through the Strategic Board I have been working hard with the different directors to see what further efficiencies and effective ways we can adopt to prosecute more successfully.

  Q391  Mr Turner: Do you think public awareness and understanding about the different powers and roles of organisations with prosecutorial powers, other than the CPS, is important?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think it is.

  Q392  Mr Turner: Why are there some that involve you and others which do not involve you?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think it is historical.

  Q393  Chairman: Have you never been attracted by the Scottish system, where there is a prosecution monopoly? You would find that attractive, would you not?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I find partnership very attractive, because it works.

  Q394  Chairman: Are those not weasel words?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, they are not, because you will know that I was the minister responsible at the Home Office for creating the Office of Criminal Justice Reform and the minister responsible for driving really hard the local criminal justice process, and that is because I believed 100% in the benefits of partnership. I remember that when I started in 2003 certain people said I was sweet, and the reason they said I was sweet was I really believed that the police and the CPS and others would all work together. After 30 years of doing this, I did not think it was sweet, I thought it was essential if we were going to get a criminal justice process going. So I do not see partnership as weasel, I see partnership as the way of getting really effective productive improvements. If you look at all the prosecutors, and this is something that clearly hit me when I became Attorney, they all have the same objective in terms of identifying crime, prosecuting it fairly and successfully to the benefit of our community. They are all operating in the same courts, according to the same rules, before similar judges and, therefore, there are opportunities for us to help one another. If the agencies remained hermetically sealed within their jurisdiction, there were some real difficulties. Why? Because crime is becoming increasingly complex.

  Q395  Chairman: I do not think you need to persuade us of the argument for it. Quite the contrary, I was asking the question why you do not take the further step?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: You know that we have got the Strategic Board, we are having a review of all the operational practices that are operated by all of the prosecutors and all options are on the table, nothing is off the table. We have a Strategic Board meeting on 2 April. I have asked each of my directors to look rigorously at what they do, how they do it, with whom they do it, to look at the crime trajectory: where is the direction of travel, what sort of prosecutions will we be likely to be faced with in the next five, ten years, who is going to be doing it, what is the level of expertise we will need, what and how are we going to be able to fund those? So those radical systemic issues are now being discussed very, very critically by the prosecutorial team as a team, and it is the first time that has ever happened, and I think it has been important that we have been able to do that, because we reviewed at a very fundamental level, as a result of the review of the Attorney General's role, as to what each of us did, and why we were doing it, and how we were doing it and whether the process adopted was the right one for the 21st century. So that is exactly what we are doing now.

  Chairman: In other words all options are on the table under the Attorney General's role in the same paragraph, but I am not sure I am supposed to connect them. I am going to ask Mr Tyrie to make one further quick question, because we are actually out of time.

  Q396  Mr Tyrie: I want to bring you back, if I may, to your role in the Binyam Mohammed investigation. You have had those papers, those 42 documents, since last October. Is that not correct?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think, firstly, to say—

  Q397  Mr Tyrie: I am sorry, could I have an answer to the question of when you got the papers?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I do not accept it is 42 documents, and I do accept since when the matter was referred to me.

  Q398  Mr Tyrie: The 42 documents is pretty much a matter of public domain. Why is it taking you so long to digest them?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I beg your pardon, 42 documents—

  Q399  Mr Tyrie: The fact of the 42 documents is pretty much in the public domain.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Are you asserting that only documents that need to be reviewed are 42 documents?

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