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.

A legal tree
A legal stories tree

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

thesecretbarrister Law Inaction, Politics , ,

5 Replies

  1. I’m sorry, but I have to doubt your colleague was given 9 trails. I speak as a long suffering CPS prosecutor who spend several years in the Magistrates Teams. I never, ever, had 9 full trials. Criminal case papers are sent the night before, unless it was a paper file, in which case it was traffic.

    If you have traffic lists, perhaps you get to this number. But many of these will be ‘failure to notify’ trials, or no insurance. These do not take an hour to prepare. 10 minutes, including copying the relevant pages. Most can be done without ever looking at the papers. It will not have been 9 substantive hearings.

    I’ve also never had a list of 50 cases. 30, perhaps, and that was a really terrible day. Those were not that common.

    1. I can’t believe you work anywhere particularly busy.

      I was at Romford Mags recently where the prosecutor had 7 cases in the morning alone! There was a separate list for the afternoon Some motoring, some theft & at least one domestic violence.

      Thames Mags lists are never much shorter than 30 in each court room and at busy times they regularly top 50 with little or no motoring!

      I conducted a domestic violence trial at Stratford not long ago. The CPS hadn’t bothered to send the (barrister) prosecutor all of the papers either electronically or on paper – her biggest problem was that she was missing the complainant’s statement. She had three other trials that morning all with missing papers, which means no effective preparation could have taken place.

      Have to say that I like prosecutors like you – the sort who doesn’t bother to prepare trials… makes winning a trial very very easy. Thanks.

  2. I’ve confirmed with my colleague, and 9 trials it was (including two section 172 “fail to furnish” trials). This accords with my experience from prosecuting magistrates’ lists when I was given up to 8 (non-traffic) trials to prepare in a morning (and that was pre-digitisation so it was quite literally picking up the bulky paper files at 9am and having to wing it). Due to an unexplained “administrative error” by the CPS the e-files were not sent to my colleague until the morning, although I understand that nowadays efforts are usually made to send e-briefs through the night before (albeit rarely before 5pm).

    From speaking to other CPS prosecutors, the expectations and demands placed upon agents appear to exceed those placed upon employed prosecutors, which would explain your fortune in having avoided the 9-trial list dumped on you on a morning.

    With respect, if your CPS training and/or practice has normalised “never looking at the papers” as an acceptable way of working in any case, that tells its own tale.

  3. I have to disagree about agents getting the raw end of the workload; it was always fairly even in the courts I attended. They once we’re routinely, I gather, but as the majority of Mags coverage is now in house, that has since faded (in my experience). In my time, I didn’t find that true (though I will accept what you say from others).

    Agents are, however, hampered by the woeful inefficiency of bundling. The lack of access to the internal systems meant they often do not have had the most recent information or reviews, which is disgraceful. That ought be rectified urgently as I know it resulted in problems with many, many cases.

    8 (crime) trials in the Mags is fairly exceptional; in London, at least. 4 or 5 is the normal amount (and even that is starting to verge on excessive for anyone to fully prepare).

    The environment does place a huge burden on everyone, in house and external. The majority do exceptionally well with what they have.

    The CPS ought to own its failings, of which there are many. I agree entirely with you that they have not.

    The Court also should, too, however. The listing policy is half of the problem. It is they who list so much in Courts, and agents and lawyers are simply expected to do it.

    Just to be clear, not preparing was never normalised. It still isn’t. Files are also only sent to in house by 5, of not later. Personally, I worked every night for several hours, sometimes into the wee hours when I found myself facing a dung heap or a two day trial without notice, and was at court by half 8 to continue to prepare. You yourself seem to say that you had to prepare 8 cases before court started, as the norm.

    Cases are woefully prepared because there is a lacl of time to look at them. Everyone has too much work, and that simply keeps growing.

    However, courts routinely move work, and you are expected simply to get on with it and they have little tolerance for time when asked for. I was frequently deployed as standby. In other words, if someone doesn’t attend court to prosecute, I would have to rush to whichever court it was and deal with whatever I found there. Knowing the position did not stop judges simply calling cases on anyway.

    1. If you’re working in London then we are having very different experiences. I’ve not faced an in house CPS lawyer in a trial for a very long time – I can think of one occasion in the past year. Everybody else has been external counsel.

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