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The Crown Prosecution Service

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A picture of the Crown Prosecution Service logo.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the main prosecuting authority in England and Wales1. It is a Government agency with responsibility for prosecuting most criminal offences on behalf of the Crown. Certain other offences are prosecuted by other agencies, such as the Probation Service, Department for Work and Pensions and local councils.

The CPS is divided into 42 areas which correspond with the areas covered by Police forces. However, the CPS London deals with the Police areas of both the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police. Each area will deal with offences investigated by the local constabulary, as well as offences being dealt with by the British Transport Police but which took place within their boundaries. Each CPS area is headed by a Chief Crown Prosecutor (CCP). Most areas have several offices but some of the smaller ones have only one.

The CPS has more than 8,500 staff in total, a large majority of whom are engaged in front-line roles rather than business support, human resources and the like. The head of the CPS overall is the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). At the time of writing (2010) this post is held by Keir Starmer, QC. On January 1st 2010, the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office (RCPO), formerly independent, became part of the CPS.

The nature of the work done by the CPS obviously requires close working relationships with other organisations in the criminal justice system such as the Police and Her Majesty's Courts Service.

History of the CPS

Prior to the founding of the CPS, deciding whether to charge a case was the responsibility of the Police and the job of prosecuting it went to the Police Prosecuting Solicitors Departments. A 1981 Royal Commission report found that the this system was resulting in weak cases being brought to court because of an understandable lack of objectivity in deciding whether to charge a case and that as a result, too many weak cases were being prosecuted and failing.

A government white paper published in 1983 recommended the founding of an independent prosecution service. The Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 was the result. The act also made the Director of Public Prosecutions, a position which already existed, the head of the CPS.

Charging a Crime

Crimes are reported, obviously enough, to the Police. From there, the Police have the legal right to charge certain minor offences but for most crimes they will need to consult with a CPS prosecutor. The police officer in charge of the case meets with a prosecutor2 and presents them with the evidence. This may include witness statements, transcripts of any interview with the suspect, photographs of the crime scene and so on. The prosecutor will review the evidence and decide whether or not to bring charges based on two different tests contained within a document called The Code For Crown Prosecutors:

  • The Evidential Test - The prosecutor must decide on the strength of the evidence, consider the likely approach the defence will take if a prosecution takes place, and the subsequent likelihood of conviction. The CPS is a publicly-funded body and has a responsibility to make sensible use of its budgets – if a case has no realistic prospect of conviction, it will not be prosecuted. Court cases are expensive and it would be a waste of public money to proceed with a case which is very unlikely to result in a conviction.

  • The Public Interest Test - If the case passes the evidential case, the prosecutor will then consider whether a prosecution is in the public interest. For example, if someone breaks a window, a prosecutor could authorise a charge of Criminal Damage. However, if the suspect has no previous convictions, shows regret and offers to pay for the damage, it is unlikely the lawyer would consider a prosecution to be in the public interest.

Sometimes the lawyer will be unable to make a decision on whether the suspect should be charged and will ask the Police to follow further lines of enquiry. The Police will do so and will return for further advice at a later date.

Once the lawyer is happy that the case passes both tests, he or she will agree to charge one or more offences and will specify which charges those should be. For example, fighting in the street might be charged as Affray or as the more serious Violent Disorder, depending on circumstances. In making this decision they will consider both the severity of the actual events, any injuries or damage caused, and the likelihood of convictions on different levels of charge.

Prosecuting a Case

After a charge or charges have been agreed, the case will begin with a hearing in the Magistrates' Court. From this point on, the CPS has responsibility for prosecuting the case. Lawyers will ask the Police for any further evidence they need as the case progresses. This might include further witness statements to clarify points of uncertainty or forensic evidence, which might be particularly important in certain types of cases such as rapes.

In the past, charges which were serious enough to be heard in a Crown Court would be prosecuted by members of the self-employed bar3 and this is still the case with many of the most serious cases, but CPS in-house lawyers are taking on more and more Crown Court cases by prosecuting them in court as well as being in charge of the case from the office.

In the Magistrates' Courts in-house lawyers will prosecute the vast majority of cases.

Court cases are not quite how they are shown on television, where there is a trial which the defence often wins. In reality, the defence role is usually more to make sure that their client is treated fairly and as a damage-limitation exercise, presenting any mitigating circumstance to the court and lobbying for the lowest sentence they can get. Conviction rates for the Magistrates' Courts are 87.3% from nearly 929,000 cases, with a figure of 80.9% from 966,000 cases in the Crown Courts4. However, this figure does include guilty pleas, which is how the majority of cases end. Most cases don't actually get to a trial in front of a jury because the defendant often pleads guilty before then; this is very different to what TV and films would have you believe!

1In Scotland, cases are prosecuted by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Northern Ireland has the Public Prosecution Service.2Out of office hours, there is a telephone advice service called CPS Direct.3That is to say, criminal barristers who act from a barristers' chambers and who usually operate as both prosecution and defence lawyers for hire.4All figures from 2008/9.

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