Crown Prosecution Service. All tail and no teeth

Many people say the CPS has failed. The CPS idea has not failed – it has never been given the chance to work.

When the 1981 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice recommended that there should be an independent prosecuting service, what was proposed was fundamentally different to the CPS created. It said that within each police force area there should be a Chief Crown Prosecutor co-equal with the Chief Constable and responsible for local prosecutions. The Government rejected this plan and created a large, unwieldy CPS.

The service has never been truly independent. Its lawyers cannot interview witnesses and so make decisions based on information provided by the police. CPS lawyers are not allowed to appear in the Crown Court, but are blamed if a Crown Court case collapses.

The CPS has to decide if a prosecution is in the public interest – a subjective law-and-order decision, not an objective legal decision. The CPS minister is the Attorney General, who is not responsible for law and order, so the CPS lacks the information necessary to decide what is in the public interest.

These problems are not the fault of CPS management, but the appallingly low morale of CPS staff is. It is a centralised bureaucracy run by orders from the “Fuhrer's bunker” of CPS HQ. A tenth of the staff work at HQ, but HQ gets a fifth of the entire budget. There are nine grade five senior lawyers at HQ, but only one for each of the 13 areas nationwide. Original plans for the CPS envisaged 1,500 lawyers and 1,100 administrators, but today the CPS has 2,000 lawyers and 4,000 administrators. In military terms, it is all tail and no teeth.

The CPS has had numerous structural changes. The original structure had 33 Chief Crown Prosecutors, each dealing with one or two police forces under four regional directors. Then the regional directors were sacked and the 33 areas were merged into 13 areas unrelated to police force areas, Crown Court circuits or regional crime squad boundaries. The current fad of “teamworking” has also been forced on every CPS branch.

A more fundamental problem is the lack of a sense of purpose. There is no realisation that the role of a prosecuting organisation is law enforcement and that prosecuting decisions are not simply legal, but have implications for policing. I talk to many CPS lawyers. They are unanimous that things cannot go on as they are.

Labour wants change and I believe that even the Conservatives will want a rethink when the job of DPP becomes vacant in 1997. The CPS should come under the Home Secretary. We should return to the Royal Commission's original plan, with Chief Prosecutors in each police area and independent boards of inspectors with judges, magistrates, police and lawyers.

CPS staff should look to the future with confidence. The next 10 years will be better.