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ONE of the founding principles of the Crown Prosecution Service - that lawyers should be exclusively responsible for the prosecution of cases - has been swept away by the government.
Last week, the home secretary, Jack Straw, announced that non-lawyers are, for the first time, to be allowed to review files and prosecute uncontested cases in the magistrates courts.
The move, which will require a change in the law, is designed to speed up justice but has been greeted with dismay by the CPS lawyers' union, the Association of First Division Civil Servants (FDA), which said it would undermine the CPS's independence.
The union has also attacked a third measure announced by Straw - the permanent presence of CPS staff in police stations.
The announcement is the government's official response to the Narey Report, commissioned by Straw's predecessor Michael Howard.
It contained a range of recommendations, some of which were rejected, including the controversial proposal for defendants charged with either-way offences to be denied the right to jury trial.
Other suggestions, including the proposal that the CPS be stripped of its right to discontinue cases on public interest grounds, will be given further consideration.
But Straw has moved decisively to end the CPS lawyers' long-cherished exclusive responsibility for handling cases, which they maintain is an essential component of any independent prosecuting body.
Straw said the move, combined with the police station initiative, was "designed to enable files in straightforward guilty cases to be prepared, reviewed and disclosed to the defence in time for the case to be heard at the next available court hearing after charge".
Kevin Goodwin, convenor of the FDA's CPS section, said he was "astonished" by the move.
"The government has devastated the morale within the CPS which it was expressly trying to restore," he said, adding that having CPS staff permanently deployed in police stations threatened the independence of the service at a time of public concern about undue police influence on the service.
A Law Society spokesman agreed that the government's plans for non-lawyers would erode the CPS's independence.