Last weekend, the Sun on Sunday gobbled up the juiciest, lowest-hanging fruit on the legal stories tree (if such an arboreal metaphor exists) and published a mini-splash on the various maladies rotting the Crown Prosecution Service.
The article, “Witless for the Prosecution”, relied upon seemingly anecdotal evidence from two anonymous CPS whistleblowers – one a “top barrister” (so not me) – and reported that “morale has hit rock bottom and staff are cracking under the stress”. Implicitly attributing the problem to the 31% cut in CPS staff since 2010 (although remaining strangely silent on The Sun’s vibrant enthusiasm for the austerity agenda that directly led to that cut), the piece listed a series of bullet points alleging various examples of overworked employees and failing prosecutions.
None of which, to readers of this blog, is news. But The Sun is nevertheless to be congratulated on pursuing a scandal that the broadsheets have hitherto seen fit to ignore.
Today, the CPS found time and resources to publish a response. Describing the original article as “misleading” and “ridiculous”, it took issue with various facets including suggestions that prosecutors deal with 160 cases at a time (the average per lawyer is 79, the CPS retorts), and that two lawyers can cover as many as 16 courts. By way of final fanfare, we were assured that “Our record of delivering justice for the public speaks for itself”. In other words, the take-home message ran, it’s a happy and well-oiled crew manning HMS CPS.
No doubt the Sun on Sunday has sufficient material from its sources to respond itself. But just to add a dash of balance into the mix, I would respectfully submit the following anecdotes for consideration:
- It is not uncommon for CPS caseworkers at the courts I attend to be expected to cover multiple courtrooms. Caseworkers are the glue that hold the CPS together – they prepare the cases in the office, take records of court hearings, assist barristers at court and gather, chase, locate and copy any material that may be requested by one of the (conservative estimate) fifteen barristers in any given court. It is an exhausting and unforgiving job covering one court’s load. To attempt this job running between five different courtrooms is simply Sisyphean. I have in the past fortnight seen caseworkers reduced to tears at the impossibility of their job.
- I cannot speak personally to the average number of cases per caseworker nationally. What I can say is that I receive repeat instructions from caseworkers I know to be diligent and assiduous, who, due to their workloads, are recently unable to deal with simple requests I have sent them in relation to serious cases involving firearms, robberies and near-fatal violence.
- A junior member of my chambers was recently at the magistrates’ court, prosecuting a “magistrates’ list”. Basically, any given magistrates’ courtroom will have a list of up to 50 short hearings (first appearances, legal applications, sentences etc), or a shorter list of trials, and the CPS will often instruct barristers as “agents” to do all the prosecution work in one courtroom. My colleague was given 9 trials to prepare for a single day. Preparing a trial properly from scratch takes at least an hour. He received the papers at 9am. Court started at 9:30.
- I have in the past two months prosecuted a dozen trials for the CPS. Not a single one had been prepared fully in accordance with counsel’s advice. And only 1 of those 12 resulted in the defendant being convicted of the offence originally charged.
- This year I have lost count of the number of prosecution witnesses who have told me that, as a result of the way they have been treated by the CPS, next time they are a victim of crime, they will not be calling the police.
- This month I have watched two extremely dangerous men released onto the streets due to basic failings by the CPS.
I appreciate the difficulties that Alison Saunders as Director of Public Prosecutions faces in remaining politically neutral. I do not expect to see her travelling to Jeremy Corbyn rallies publicly denouncing the financial pillaging of her department. But if she is unable to publicly speak the truth about the funding crisis in the CPS, she could at least do the public the service of not publishing Pravda-style vignettes seeking to minimise and delegitimise valid criticism.
It is indeed true that the CPS’ “record of delivering justice for the public speaks for itself”. It would just be edifying if there were a little more frankness about exactly what that record is.