Defending the prosecutors' rights

As soon as Kevin Goodwin became the new convenor of the Crown Prosecution Service section of the Association of First Division Civil Servants (FDA), he began to speak out publicly against CPS management. Shortly after, he received a letter signed by all 13 of the service's chief Crown prosecutors imploring him to shut up.

Warning the CPS lawyers' union leader that "calls for strikes, days of action and public debates are neither constructive nor in the best interests of the service", the letter claimed his tactics might "lead to the service failing to acquire rights of audience at a time when support might otherwise have been anticipated".

Although conceding that the demands on CPS staff were greater than ever before, the letter stated that the service's "hard work and continuing commitment might be destroyed by ill-judged and insensitive handling of issues which ought to be, and in the past have been, addressed through the normal consultative channels".

The chief prosecutors were so angry, it is not surprising that they failed to spot a probable flaw in at least part of their argument. For if ever proof was needed that CPS lawyers were sufficiently independent to prosecute cases effectively in the crown court, Goodwin and his union's obstinate refusal to do their bidding was surely it.

There is, indeed, an air of fearlessness about this tall, 44-year-old Mancunian. And this is further reflected in a circular sent out to the members of the CPS section when Goodwin took over its convenor post.

In it he tells of a colleague who had suggested his career might be jeopardised if he applied for the post.

Goodwin informed the membership that such was the novelty of the thought that a CPS lawyer might further his or her career within the service, it instantly removed any doubts he had about standing.

"I have seen the enforced and wilful dismantling of a high-quality prosecuting service," Goodwin said, before promising to reaffirm the word "Prosecution" in the title Crown Prosecution Service.

"I am prepared to push as hard as I can to achieve this," he added.

It was not difficult to see where Goodwin was coming from, and he did not hang around. Just two months later, a council meeting of the section passed an unprecedented motion "to reflect the loss of confidence by the section in the management of the CPS… and the overwhelming view that they [CPS lawyers] are no longer able to properly serve the interests of justice".

The motion gave the section committee, headed by Goodwin, discretion to ballot the membership on strike action, or a "day of national protest", as the union preferred to call it.

It was strong stuff, especially coming from a union section headed by a man who insists he is not a trade unionist.

Goodwin joined the CPS from private practice as a senior Crown prosecutor in 1991. When he signed up to the FDA in February 1995, it was the first time he had ever belonged to a union. Only one year later he was elected, unopposed, as convenor, after concluding that the union needed to change its tactics following a brief stint on the section committee.

"I suppose I felt the policies of the section did not reflect the overwhelming view of the membership that a far more positive stance against the management's policies was needed," says Goodwin.

He argues that lawyers in the CPS are suffering from a deliberate management policy of "de-lawyering".

Goodwin says he intended, when joining the CPS, for it to be a "final career move". But he claims that the career path for lawyers in the service is progressively being eroded.

As examples of this, Goodwin cites recruitment freezes, voluntary redundancies, and a significant reduction in the number of senior posts, following a recent restructuring which saw the number of area offices reduced from 31 to 13.

For him, the latest example of this erosion is the recent decision, in the name of efficiency, to disband the service's team of 45 special casework lawyers, who are currently responsible for taking over the prosecution of the more complex and sensitive cases from the branches.

What, in the view of Director of Public Prosecutions Barbara Mills QC, will no doubt represent a sensible response to the continuing Treasury squeeze on finances – the specialist lawyers are being sent back to the branches – is, for Goodwin, another plank of the service's de-lawyering policy. A policy which, he claims, is leading to an "inexorable drive for unqualified staff to become involved in reviewing files".

"I believe there is a serious danger that the Prosecution of Offences Act 1986, which established the CPS, will be infringed in that prosecutors may soon be prosecuting cases without having reviewed the files," says Goodwin.

Meanwhile, he adds, a mountain of paperwork and red tape emanating from the CPS headquarters is making it even harder for its lawyers to get on with their real jobs, namely prosecuting cases.

Thanks to last month's Mori poll of the FDA's members, which was commissioned by the union and revealed the most demoralised workforce the polling organisation had ever surveyed, Goodwin is largely immune from allegations that he is an unrepresentative militant.

But what does he actually want to achieve? One thing the FDA campaign has not set out to achieve, stresses Goodwin, is a higher wage package for lawyers, although he expresses grave concern over the personal pressure the hard-pressed CPS lawyers are experiencing.

Throughout, the union has been careful to couch its grievances in public interest terms. The FDA's message is: bashing the lawyers in order to save money jeopardises the fight against crime.

"I hope that if there are to be budget cuts in the future that the prosecuting branches will be protected," Goodwin says.

"As far as the members are concerned, all the cuts so far seem to have been directed at those conducting the core prosecuting business while the bureaucracy continues to thrive."

So far, he has failed to win any tangible concessions from Mills, let alone the Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell QC, who has now refused to meet with the FDA for a second time, following an approach by the union on the publication of the Mori poll.

"I thought, perhaps in my naivity, that if we asked to see the minister who was responsible for the CPS because of grave concerns about the public interest, he would naturally want to meet us," remarks Goodwin, dryly.

The rebuff is hardly a surprise. If Lyell did decide to meet with the FDA it would totally undermine Mills.

Goodwin, however, appears undeterred and is now preparing to embark on the next stage of the FDA's programme – a national conference on the future of the CPS.

And, of course, there is always the nascent threat of a one-day strike – sorry, "a day of national protest".