Livelihoods on the line as CPS wields axe

Last week The Lawyer exclusively revealed the sets which had been axed from the Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS's) preferred list.

The debate that raged when the system was introduced three years ago has been re-ignited by the CPS's equally controversial decision to drastically cull the number of preferred sets, from 38 to 27.

Barristers, some of whom are 100 per cent reliant on CPS work, are angry. Hardly surprising when you consider that with one fell swoop, and minimal justification, their livelihoods have been taken away.

One victim said: "Either I give up the Bar, look to move to a preferred set, or join the CPS."

Under the preferred set system, 80 per cent of prosecutions in London are guaranteed to selected sets, with other sets left to fight for the remaining 20 per cent.

While few sets are wholeheartedly in favour of the system, many believe that a reduction in the number of preferred sets was inevitable and even some of those axed play down the significance of CPS work.

What then are the real consequences of the cull?

Kamala Ramdeen, of Britton Street Chambers, says that she is set to lose her entire practice.

Ramdeen, a senior junior of 20 years call, had handled rape and murder trials, but once the CPS preferred set system was introduced, her workload was reduced to the most basic cases, committals, sentencing and appeals.

Clearly the selection process is anything but perfect, but Ronald Thwaites QC, who is in favour of the reduction in number of sets on the list, says: "It is an embryonic system and inevitably it needed refining".

Such refinement could not come quickly enough for some. Philip Naughton QC, head of chambers at 3 Serjeant's Inn, says: "We took the decision a year ago to come off the list. Although it was nice to be on it we were not doing well out of it." 2 Gray's Inn Square followed the same route.

Ramdeen's head of chambers at Britton Street, Marvin Gederon, is appalled at both the way the system operated and the way his chambers has now been shunned through no fault of its own.

Britton Street was "one of the pioneers to get a more equal system", says Gederon, and via discussions with the Bar's race relations committee, the CPS was encouraged to offer a better ethnic balance of prosecutors.

For Britton Street Chambers, the system was never going to work. With nine out of 15 of its members spending 99 per cent of their time prosecuting for the CPS, Britton Street was guaranteed 3 per cent of the work marked out for preferred sets.

Gederon says his chambers never got close to that figure, peaking at a paltry 1.5 per cent and, despite meetings with the CPS, he claims promises were regularly broken, with the workload bottoming out at 0.5 per cent.

The chambers could not help but notice the drop-off and encouraged its members to pursue other areas of practice.

Ramdeen, however, is persevering in the now vain hope that commitment to a just cause will eventually bring just return.

She believes that the CPS has reverted to its former policy of "big is beautiful and small is to be squeezed out".

The CPS defence to accusations of favouritism is that a fall-off in prosecutions made a reduction in the number of preferred sets "inevitable".

A CPS spokeswoman says that "while all sets had performed to an acceptable standard, some had performed better than others and our list of preferred sets should reflect this".

In defence of the preferred set system, she says that it is the most appropriate course of action in a situation where the number of barristers in London greatly exceeds the amount of work.

However, the figure for finalised cases in London's crown courts for 1997-98 has fallen by only 209 since 1995-96.

Understandably, Michael Greenaway, senior clerk at Queen Elizabeth Building, the chambers of David Jeffreys QC and Peter Whiteman QC, is pleased to retain his preferred set status, but plays down its importance to the success of his chambers.

"When the system was first introduced, our prosecution work fell by almost 50 per cent overnight." He does not expect it to rise significantly now that the number of sets has been reduced.

Greenaway's main complaint is that, on average, each member of his chambers receives only one brief a month and no matter how well he or she fares, they are not entitled to any more.

He says the absence of a merit-based system breeds mediocrity and would like to see open competition, where where the best barristers will have nothing to fear.

However, Carl Teper – whose Gray's Inn Square set is another of the CPS's victims – says that while a fifth of his members were involved in prosecution work, some of whom will be severely hit, he is not too worried.

He says prosecution work has never been especially profitable.

A typical four-day hearing can see the barrister taking home a mere u400. A standard fee would mean u46 for the plea and directions hearing, u220 for the first day, u155 for the second (which will often only be a half day) and u46 for the sentencing.

With this in mind, some of the sets which have been struck off the list, may be able to re-direct their practice to more profitable briefs.