New Government:new CPS

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is on the eve of yet another major overhaul.

On one level, it needs another shake-up like it needs a hole in the head. The review announced last month by the Attorney General, John Morris, will create uncertainty among staff and divert vital time and resources away from the prosecuting front-line.

But the reaction to Labour's initiative has been almost universally positive. Almost everybody now believes the service has become over-centralised and bureaucratic at the expense of its prosecutors.

This has led to some strange bedfellows. In 1993, Tory barrister Christopher Frazer published a paper for the Centre For Policy Studies arguing that the service should be privatised. In Privatise the Prosecutors he pointed out that the Phillips Commission, whose recommendations formed the basis of the CPS, had warned against a centrally-directed national service and instead advocated a locally-based system.

The paper quoted the commission's prophetic warning that a centralised service “might create pressure for management to be in the hands of professional administrators rather than of solicitors”. It added: “All this would be at the cost of substantial resources and, perhaps, of the morale of the solicitors who would be operating on the ground.”

Frazer argued that the Conservative government's decision to set up a national centrally-directed prosecution service had produced “waste, inefficiency and delay”.

His radical solution was to slim down the CPS to a small cadre of staff responsible for contracting out prosecution services to independent solicitors. He now accepts that that solution is politically unacceptable given the colour of the new Government.

But he is otherwise delighted by the planned reforms. Indeed, he and Labour appear to be very much on the same wavelength. Labour's pre-election paper on the CPS, The Case for the Prosecution, drew much the same conclusions that Frazer's paper had.

Morris' decision to boost the number of chief crown prosecutors from 13 to 42 is the first indication of Labour's determination to shift resources from the headquarters to the ground.

Frazer approves but believes there is a danger the CCPs may become “hugger-mugger” with their corresponding chief constables. He would like to see further decentralisation with the creation of a chief prosecutor responsible for each crown court complex.

Former senior crown prosecutor Neil Addison also supports decentralisation, but criticises the plan to appoint CCPs from within the CPS or government legal service. He says competition should be thrown open to private practitioners if the new CCPs are to have any credibility as independently-minded operators.

New Labour, it appears, is pushing at an open door. The reforms do have their inherent dangers however – nobody wants to see the CPS's independence in relation to the police eroded, and there is a real danger that this will happen.

In March, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, attacked the recommendations of the Home Office Nearey report that the CPS should have a permanent presence in police stations: “I have some fear that the permanent presence of a prosecutor in the police station would blur the important distinction between their roles,” he warned.

Such warnings are likely to resurface once the honeymoon with Labour is over.