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Complaints about Public Prosecutors

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

3. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901836)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901841)

Since the Crown Prosecution Service launched its new victims’ right to review scheme on 5 June 2013, victims have the right to request a review of a CPS decision not to prosecute in qualifying cases. The CPS feedback and complaints policy has also been revised to reflect the appointment of the independent assessor of complaints for the CPS. The VRR scheme was the subject of a consultation, concluded on 5 September 2013, and the CPS is considering the responses to the consultation with a view as to how best to operate the VRR scheme in the future.

There have been 600 requests from victims of crime to review prosecutors’ decisions to drop their case since the victims’ right to review was introduced six months ago. Given that level of demand, will the Government consider looking at widening the right to review to include decisions to caution instead of charge and decisions to alter substantially the original charge?

It might be worth while seeing first how the current changes, which are significant, operate in practice. The hon. Lady referred to the figure, which is 662, of which the determination was that the original decision was incorrect in, I think, 18 cases. There have also been cases referred to the independent assessor, where six have been upheld and three partly upheld. I am utterly pragmatic about this; I wish to see victims’ rights at the heart of the criminal justice system, but there are significant changes and we need first to see how well the system is operating and, in particular, how it will operate once the CPS responds in February to its consultation.

The Crown Prosecution Service is prosecuting fewer and fewer cases each year, and has been referred fewer cases to charge by the police. This suggests that more cases are being dropped at a stage in the criminal justice system where no right to review exists. Is the Attorney-General concerned by that?

The hon. Gentleman may be right, but there may be other explanations, one of which is that the noticeable fall in crime is leading to fewer cases coming to the police in the first place. I am obviously not answerable for the actions of the police who, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, are in fact independent in the way they operate. They can be subject to judicial review, but certainly not to ministerial command. If the hon. Gentleman or indeed any hon. Member has examples where they think that the police decision-making process is not working properly, I would be most grateful if they brought them to my attention or indeed to that of the Home Secretary.

Many people, not just victims of crime, have concerns about the performance of public prosecutors in court. Will the Attorney-General set out what inspections are made of public prosecutors in court and how many unannounced visits are made in order to assess the performance of the CPS prosecutors?

The Crown prosecutors who appear in court as advocates are monitored. Indeed, it is a rather more rigorous monitoring process than the one available, for example, for the independent Bar that does their work. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details of how this monitoring is carried out. The previous Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, made a very particular point in the first year that I was working with him in carrying out an extensive review of the performance of Crown prosecutors. This is monitored and it is also the subject of inspections by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. There are published reports on the quality of the advocacy being delivered.

Now that wasted cost orders are no longer available in legally aided cases awarded against the Crown, how can accountability be enforced against Crown prosecutors who have plainly not only wasted the court’s time, but let down the criminal justice system, which includes victims?

First, if there is adverse publicity in respect of prosecutors not doing their jobs properly, that is a matter of very serious concern to me and should and would be a matter of serious concern to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That provides some sanction in itself, quite apart from the fact that I have to answer for the work of the Crown prosecutors once a month in this House.

The day after we saw barristers and solicitors withdrawing their labour in the teeth of the cuts to legal aid, what is the Attorney-General doing to try to improve the efficiency of the Crown Prosecution Service? When I was a witness just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the inefficiencies and time wasted—for victims, witnesses and prosecutors—in the system. With these stringent cuts, that should surely be an area in which to look for efficiencies.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are seeking to introduce many efficiencies into the system, including digital working, early guilty plea systems and better warning of witnesses. Some of those are in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, but others, as she will appreciate, are not. They lie with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Court Service. There is a great drive for efficiency: efficiency delivers savings and in a time of austerity, there is no doubt that improving the efficiency of the Court Service and of the throughput of the criminal justice system is one of the highest priorities—both for me and, I know, for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Can anything be done to rectify a perceived imbalance in criminal cases where the person on trial has direct access to the barrister who is representing him while the victim, as a witness, has no direct access to the prosecutor? Victims sometimes feel that their case is not as fully understood by the prosecutor as it should be. Can anything be done about that?

There are limits to what is feasible, although it is also right to say to my hon. Friend that the previous practice, whereby the prosecuting counsel could have no contact whatever with the witness, is now at an end. There is now an opportunity for an introduction and an explanation of how the court process is likely to develop, which I think is a great improvement. That said, there should be no suggestion that a witness is being coached, which my hon. Friend will appreciate could undermine a prosecution case. Those two things have to be balanced. A point that was always made to me when I prosecuted was the absolute necessity of informing witnesses, introducing oneself to them and keeping them informed within the bounds of propriety and the court process about what is actually going on, including talking to witnesses who turn up to find that they are not needed because the defendant has pleaded guilty. It is important to explain that to them.