Last night, BBC 4 debuted its brand new corporate video documentary on the Crown Prosecution Service. And I, no doubt like many defence lawyers, CPS employees, barristers and judges, felt doused in a purifying tide of relief to learn that, fortuitously, the past decade of my professional career has been one long dream. Less the Dallas-shower-dream and more a Lucy-In-The-Sky-With-Diamonds zippy acid headfangle, but a mirage nonetheless.
Because what we learned last night is that, happily, when the CPS is prosecuting a case, certain things that we in the industry have come to think of as standard simply don’t occur. In particular, thank Lordy, we didn’t see any of this:
- Sheaves of correspondence from defence solicitors piling up unanswered;
- Lawyers whose crushing caseload means it takes a week for them to return the prosecuting barrister’s call;
- Caseworkers at court breaking down in tears at the Sisyphean task of covering four courtrooms at opposite ends of the building;
- A series of broken photocopiers waiting for “the contractor” to turn up, while evidence sits uncopied and unserved;
- A defendant being wildly over-charged as a ploy to elicit a guilty plea to the correct offence;
- Five boxes of highly relevant disclosure languishing under a desk, waiting to be dumped on the defence on the first day of trial;
- A serious case of wounding with intent being dismissed by a livid judge after the CPS failed, at the fifth time of asking, to obtain the medical records from the hospital;
- A serious armed robbery being abandoned because obtaining the key scientific evidence is too expensive;
- A “Level D” CPS senior lawyer telling the prosecuting barrister that they have to run a case with no prospects “because of our statistics”;
- A sweating prosecution barrister at court trying hopelessly to speak to a “Level D” on the telephone so that a decision can be taken on a case, said “Level D” being permanently in a Very Important Meeting from which they must not be disturbed.
Re those last two, what the hagiography intriguingly did show was what well may have been one of these aforementioned Importing Meetings, which took the form of a pleasant-looking committee at which a selection of earnest nodding types shook their heads for an hour over a series of religiously and racially aggravated offences and the way in which they had been dealt with by the prosecutors and the courts. A nutter who had posted anti-Semitic nonsense on a Russian online Nazi forum and some other clown who had urinated on a mosque took the spotlight, and there were tuts all round at the perceived leniency of the charging decisions and sentences.
Now while unpleasant and (in the case of the second at least) worthy of prosecution, it would be remiss not to reflect with a sigh of hangdog familiarity that this type of – in the grand scheme of a criminal populace stabbing, raping and shooting with abandon – relatively minor offence perhaps doesn’t require the resources devoted to it by this inquest. And that if the same time, diligence, resources and reflection were given over to the serious criminal cases that we on the ground see collapsing day after day, then perhaps so many wouldn’t, well, collapse.
Sadly, this window into the internal priorities of the CPS is played out in court by the head-banging decisions with which prosecuting barristers frequently have to joust. On a recent serious armed robbery – five balaclava’d yobbos wielding axes and hammers playing Supermarket Sweep in a jewellers – the sentencing exercise had to be delayed for several months. Why? Because one of the yobbos had been charged with a (unrelated) racially aggravated common assault, in that he had shoved his girlfriend and called her a “white bitch”. He admitted assaulting her, but denied using those words.
Even though he was looking at what was ultimately a 14-year sentence for the armed robbery, and the racially aggravated common assault would add quite literally nothing to his sentence, the CPS abandoned perspective in favour of their precious targets, and insisted that this trivial matter could not be dropped. Because racially and religiously aggravated offences, and satisfying the statistical whims generated in relation thereto are, per CPS policy, more important than anything else.
The resident judge, when so informed, turned a dashing shade of mottled puce, and, after receiving three truculent letters of non-explanation from the “Level D”, demanded that she attend court in person to justify her stance. Curiously enough, the day after the judge made this order, an ad-hoc review of the case concluded that, perhaps, it might not be in the public interest to pursue it after all.
I’ve noticed this little trick increasingly adopted by Judges when confronted by the faceless, unaccountable and unjustifiable institutional slavishness to statistics and box-ticking. Drag the box-ticker to court and make them justify their actions.
Noticeably the documentary also didn’t show that.