Rape trials 'hit by prosecution cutbacks'

THE BAR Council has complained to the CPS about reports from within the criminal bar and the judiciary that inexperienced counsel are being hired to prosecute serious criminal offences, particularly rape.

The move has come as a result of a widespread fears that, while defendants are still being represented by the best silks, budget cuts are forcing the CPS to hire less experienced junior counsel who command lower fees.

Several sets of chambers have confirmed the trend to The Lawyer, but barristers, practice managers and senior clerks are frightened that if they publicly criticise the CPS they will stop receiving briefs.

John Milmo QC, chair of the Bar's legal and fees committee, who is a recorder authorised to try sexual offences, said he and other judges he had spoken to had noticed a definite trend.

“We have been making representations to the CPS over this, and I cannot see any reason other than that the CPS is doing this because less experienced counsel are cheaper,” he said.

Heather Hallett QC, who has just been elected as vice-chair of the Bar Council and who leads the South Eastern Circuit, said she was very concerned.

“It is a very real worry. Briefs to prosecute serious sexual offences are coming in to sets of chambers marked at very low fees and people of insufficient experience are getting them.”

Hallett confirmed that the circuits, the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council were all worried about the situation.

“We're trying to get hard facts about it, but the trouble is that people are scared to speak out,” she said.

A Bar Council spokesman said it was essential that equality of arms be maintained between the prosecution and the defence.

This year, the CPS has had to absorb an £8 million cut in its annual budget. In the summer it announced that 60 prosecutors would be leaving the service, before mounting a fresh wave of voluntary redundancies.

A CPS spokesman confirmed that the legal aid and fees committee had “raised concerns”. But he said: “We have made it clear fees in such cases are not fixed in advance but are subject to negotiation.”

He said the ability and experience of counsel were always taken into account, and fees were designed to “provide fair remuneration for the work which must reasonably be done.”