Michael and the Mystery of the Disappearing Prosecution Service

And now, the latest instalment in a new children’s series provisionally entitled “Michael Meets The Justice System”, possibly published by Penguin (and now, happily, no longer barred to prisoners), in which the reader joins brand new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove on a rollercoaster of head-scratching and belly laughs as he tries to solve riddles and brainteasers geared around the subject of criminal justice.

Today’s wacky puzzle sees Michael try to figure out whether there is any correlation – or even causation – between increasing inertia in the Crown Prosecution Service and the announcement of yet further cuts to the CPS budget.

The latest announcement – which in fact foreshadowed George Osborne’s edict that unprotected governmental departments, such as the Ministry of Justice, should find ways to absorb a further 40% cut – foretells the Crown Prosecution Service budget for 2015-2016 reduced to £482.3 million.

By way of homage to that modern fashion of extrapolating expenditure out of context to make a seemingly impressive point, that works out at less than 2p per day per person. 14 pence per week for a prosecution service. Which represents – and here I pootle towards my actual point – a cut of nearly 30% since 2008-2009.

Thirty per cent. Cut from a public service that was struggling even back then.

It makes for a far less hashtagable cause than #SaveLegalAid, but #SaveTheCPS is equally deserving of a Twitter campaign and some fashionable celebrity advocates. Pat Sharp, perhaps. Or Mary Berry. Because, in the words of Mrs Berry (probably), without a properly funded prosecution service everything goes to shit.

#SaveTheCPS, says Mary Berry. Possibly.

Cases aren’t properly reviewed if the CPS lawyer is dumped with two additional cases for every one she finishes reviewing. Important directions in court cases get missed if a CPS caseworker is running between the five courts he is expected to cover that day. Critical evidence isn’t gathered if there are no administrative staff to receive counsel’s written advice and forward it to the police. Witnesses don’t turn up to trial if there are no Witness Care officers to remind them.

And, ultimately, if the money isn’t there to properly prosecute offences, serious crimes go unpunished.

In a recent case, I was instructed to prosecute an extremely nasty armed robbery. Bookmakers, balaclavas, machetes and a flock of terrified, traumatised members of the public, all of whom are, unsurprisingly, receiving counselling to help them come to terms with something lifted from a nightmare.

The police had put in the hours investigating. Crime Scene Investigators had combed the premises, and had uncovered scientific material linking the Defendant to the scene. This evidence, however, has to be put into a certain format in order to be admissible in court. This is standard procedure. But it also costs money.

After repeated adjournments for the CPS to obtain this crucial evidence – after written advice from me, after directions from two Judges – the memo came through to me. We can’t afford to get the evidence. Bin the case.

A serious armed robbery was abandoned by the Crown Prosecution Service solely for reasons of finance.

I didn’t blog about this at the time. I didn’t even tweet about it – because frankly it is just par for the course. It will strike any criminal barrister or any judge as entirely unremarkable. Cases are thrown out by judges and abandoned by the CPS every single day for a variety of reasons, all of which can be traced back to a lack of resources. Crucial evidence not obtained? Lack of resources. Evidence obtained but not served on the parties? Lack of resources. Case where there is no evidence dragged to the day of trial when the CPS finally review the case and realise it’s doomed? Lack of resources. Highly relevant material that fatally undermines the prosecution case not disclosed to the defence, resulting in wrongful conviction of innocent man? Lack. Of. Resources.

A lot of unfriendly fire is directed towards the CPS, particularly from the bunkers of the criminal Bar, and while I would contend that institutionally it is an example of the Peter Principle in depressing, remorseless action, there are many decent, hardworking individuals trapped within. Lawyers, caseworkers and administrators who actually give a damn. Who recognise the constitutional magnitude of an operative prosecution service, who aspire to making a difference and who despair at the vicious circle of cuts and inefficiency that renders their working life a cruel pastiche of Groundhog Day, only inverted so that they are Ned and the government is Bill Murray, punching them day after day after day in their stupidly optimistic faces.


The prosecutorial system is not close to breaking point, or hopelessly stretched, or starved of resources, or any other splash-friendly cliché. It is fucked. Fucked partly by incompetence, but primarily fucked daily, nightly and ever-so-rightly by executive arrogance that assumes the public will be too impressed by the balance sheet to notice the absence of a functioning justice system.

None of this is new.

So when Michael Gove, in his recently publicised speech, gave the impression of being taken by surprise by the pervasive slothfulness of the criminal courts, he was bearing witness either to his naivety or his disingenuity. It’s akin to blocking a sink, turning on the taps and returning a week later, tutting and shaking your head incredulously at how very wet everything is. And then turning the taps on a little bit more and walking out.

This, Mr Gove, is the natural consequence of chronically underfunding an essential limb of the legal system. The real puzzle is why, having identified the problem, you decide that the solution is not only to further cut the CPS, but to pursue the devastation of legal aid for defendants as well.

#SaveLegalAid. And #SaveTheCPS.

29 thoughts on “Michael and the Mystery of the Disappearing Prosecution Service

  1. I am a defence solicitor.

    The cuts to the CPS are at least as devastating to the cps as the cuts to the defence, if not even more so. When will the government work out that a properly working justice system, criminal and civil, is one of the essential features of national life and a civilised society?

    Once they have grasped that little concept, how about moving on to the idea that you can’t have a cjs to be proud of without an adequately resourced prosecution?

    The inefficiencies and inadequacies of the cps are a national disgrace. 99.99% of those inefficiencies and inadequacies are a result of lack of funding.

    Liked by 1 person

      • As a CPS deserter now working for the Dark Side, you did not mention the waves of Voluntary Redundancies which gave the hint to anyone who thought they might be able to get a job outside to leave which meant that those who are left contain a high-proportion of the unemployable elsewhere being sheltered by Civil-Service unsackability. Not all but a fair number.


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  3. Yet the Police will pay a london barrister to come to Ipswich, to read out a diatribe of Police, unchallenged “heresay”, against a shotgun certificate appeal…a job that can be done by a clerk?


  4. On this subject, I have lost my right to possess a shotgun, due to unchallenged heresay, and because it was physically impossible for me to get to the appeal 60 miles away, without a car or transport…denied by my soon to be divorced wife who had made the heresy “allegations” in the first place! I have told the court that i would rather go the prison for contempt of court that pay for injustice…and I MEAN that!


  5. My wife a CPS progression manager has to wade through 300-400 emails a day, mostly because other departments don’t know where to send then. Her day starts at 8am and she leaves the office at 6pm each day and comes home eats and then logs back in at home for another 2 hours, all because she does care. We are on holiday for two weeks in a beautiful place and all she is doing is stressing about how much work she will have when she returns because the office has no one who can cover her job while she is away. There used to be four people in total doing what she does now and all I want to say really is can I please have my wife back, can our two wonderful kids have their mother back and can the British people have their CPS back. One that works, o e that can get the baddies and one that can support the other departments desperately trying to get these scumbags off the strrets

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly your wife’s story chimes with that of many other CPS employees I speak to each day. It sounds like a living hell. And, tragically for criminal justice, those such as your wife who keep everything hanging together are leaving, for the very reasons you describe. I have enormous sympathy, I really do.


  6. Maybe the solution is not to rely on the government to fund the entire criminal justice system but instead to persuade it to focus on the courts and the CPS. The British system is often hailed as a model for the world, but the current system is clearly underfunded and broken.
    If the defence is no longer publicly funded, and solicitors and the Bar were free to charge an appropriate fee for services rendered, might that not provide a partial solution to the problem, for defence practitioners at least? The time has probably come to do away with Legal Aid and allow professionals to rely on their skill and reputation to attract clients. This battle has been lost and it is time to regroup and consider alternative options of funding the criminal defence system.


    • Sadly not a realistic solution, I’d venture. Solicitors and barristers are free to charge what they like for privately-paid work, but the overwhelming majority of defendants cannot afford private legal representation and so are reliant on legal aid. Doing away with legal aid would simply leave legions of unrepresented defendants clogging up the courts, increasing costs in the long term.


  7. I am a lawyer within the CPS. It is dire. It is chaos. I am an extremely organised, competent and conscientious person but I am sinking. It is impossible to get on top of things. Caseloads are creeping close to 200 per lawyer. It is going to get worse. But of course we are the ones having to deal face to face with the victims when things do go wrong. Maybe Mr Gove would like to meet with them and explain things?

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I was able to put Mr Grayling and Mr Gove in a room with every complainant to whom I have had to explain that their case has collapsed due ultimately to lack of funding, I would do so in a heartbeat. In fact, as a first step I would march Mr Gove to my local CPS office and make him spend a week just watching the madness. As I said to a commenter above, the biggest tragedy is that the conscientious workers such as yourself are (understandably) fleeing, making it even more intolerable for those left behind.


    • Then why are the cps prosecuting people for sending one text or e mail, deemed to be “herfensyffe”, the Orwellian pc capital crime of today? I was prosecuted for throwing the contents of a cup of water over my ranting now ex wife, because, having her solicitor using the calling of the police to bolster her divorce case, I demanded to be arrested and prosecuted to show what a waste of time and resources the Ceacescu/hon niches System of Britain today has become. the cps tried to drop the case, so I threatened to try and ” prosecute myself”! I did get the opportunity to address t he bench and express how kafkaesque the system has become: as for solicitors Abusing the police in divorce cases, nothing that the golf playing polyester clad masons of the lower middle classes stoop to surprises me!


    • Ha! That was in fact my original ending to this blogpost, cut for lack of space. Devastate the CPS to the same extent as Legal Aid and all of a sudden you have an Article 6 compliant legal system, no? It’s genius when you think about it.


  8. As a Crown Court usher, I’d like to tell you the top three phrases used by our CPS counsel

    * “If it please Your Honour”
    * “If I can assist your honour further…”
    * “I was only passed this file today/this morning/an hour ago/ten minutes before I came to court/etc”

    The civil service is full of nice platitudes about “best outcomes”, mostly foisted on us from On High, but how that’s supposed to happen with such chronic underfunding on all sides (except, one will note, when the Government has to defend a Judicial Review. At that point, unlimited public funds suddenly become available to instruct the best QCs possible)


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  10. I wholeheartedly agree.

    As a CPS lawyer, I spent the best part of 2 years in the Magistrates’ courts, facing 3 or 4 woefully prepared trials every day.

    When reviewing cases in the office, I’d have 8 or 10 per day, which I’d never have look at before, yet was expected to get trial ready. If I didn’t manage, I’d have to justify why. Saying “I feel I ought to actually do them properly” wasn’t good enough.

    The result? Cases reviewed in the scantest way possible, without really examining the evidence, because you just don’t have time. As an advocate, that shifted the work to you, the night before trial. You do your best to dress up the turd you’d been handed, or bin it (if you were prepared for angry witnesses and managers coming back 6 months later to demand an explanation). The number of cases that fell by the way side because crucial evidence wasn’t available, or disclosure wasn’t complied with, or frankly there was no fucking evidence whatsoever, was astonishing. The 3rd application in a day to adjourn began to get soul destroying.

    Since then, things are only getting worse. It’s no wonder new recruits are running for the door.


  11. I worked at the CPS for 25 years i gave it my all working long hours going in on Saturdays without getting extra pay just to keep up with the work. However my reward for all that i gave was to get the VR in 2012 because i had time off sick due to the stress i was under. I was a paralegal business manager and loved what i did, i cared for the victims however i was not what the then senior management team wanted so i went. Shame as the staff really do care i would go back in a heartbeat but alas i am no longer required by them.


  12. I worked for the CPS from 1986 to 2013, in various roles. As a Case Progression Officer I attended CP Meetings and was embarrassed to say time after time “not reviewed”. I used to love working there but after all those years I jumped ship because it broke my heart to see what was happening and I spent my days talking to angry people and apologising. It was truly soul destroying.


  13. I worked for the CPS for 24 years and was a Case Progression Manager when I left on voluntary redundancy in 2013. I loved my job but decided I could no longer do it to the standard I wanted to do and decided enough was enough. There are many dedicated staff still left within the CPS who continue to try hard each day for the sake of the VICTIM and WITNESSES. It’s soul destroying to have a case endorsed NFA or ONE and then having to draft letters to the victim to explain why. Overtime and working at home (digital working is great for encouraging that aspect) is just hiding a bigger issue and something needs to be done. Stand up for the CJS and time to fight back.


  14. I was a CPS caseworker for 10 years and took voluntary redundancy due to office closures. I left behind colleagues who were pushed to breaking point. Most of them were on sick leave because the pressures of trying to do a good job with so little resources made them physically and mentally ill. Nobody was willing to let standards drop and every case that was thrown out was a kick in the teeth. The public don’t realise that the majority of staff care dearly about what they do and are constantly embarrassed about the standard of care being delivered. The CPS is losing dedicated, experienced and professional employees in droves. The wheels have come off. Criminals are going free and justice is not being done. And for that I would like to say a great big fuck you to the government.


  15. 26 years in the CPS from caseworker to Associate Prosecutor (and damn good one though I say so myself). I took the Voluntary Redundancy, without any real idea as to what I would do next, when I no longer felt that we were actually helping victims and witnesses of crime. So many cases cracking or adjourning due to lack of preparation that, for the first time ever, I would counsel a friend who was involved in a non-serious crime just not to bother reporting it. We are/were no longer the Good Guys.


  16. Maxim…. Is this precisely what the government has in mind…. No one reports crime so crime DOESN’T EXIST!!!! Great for the governments statistics not so good when angry vigilante mobs decide to take matters into their own hands……


  17. Pingback: Sanguinity, seagulls and a death sentence for victims of crime | The Secret Barrister

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