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Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales Annual Conference 2010 Lecture by Keir Starmer QC


Lecture to the 2010 Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales Annual Conference by Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions.

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

I want first to say how delighted I am to be here to present your Annual Lecture.

I am very pleased to be able to join you and to speak to you at what I think we all know and acknowledge is an important juncture in the development of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

I believe that, in general, the relationship between the police and CPS has never been as good as it is today. The direction of our relationship in recent years has been towards closer working and collaboration which has resulted in the prosecution team - and a whole ethos based on mutual support.

This is of fundamental importance in discharging our obligations to the public.

The Police Superintendent is, of course, in a unique position to influence and shape future developments. You are part of the polices senior structure yet close enough to officers on the ground to hear and know their issues, concerns and successes. You have a strategic overview that is clearly and directly informed by those who are out on the streets protecting the public and enforcing the law. You occupy a pivotal position in appreciating what works and what does not work or needs improving.  Given that position and the imperative requirement to deliver quality and efficiency with less, your input into the development of criminal justice is crucial.  Partnership of course brings mutual obligations.  For our part, the CPS needs to be accessible to police officers to provide advice, we need to make good quality decisions as soon as possible, and we need to reduce unnecessary demands on police time and resources.  The police need to know what the CPS requires to make informed decisions and present cases effectively to secure convictions. There also has to be an appreciation of the value of early dialogue with CPS on individual cases and the value we can add to help guide investigations so that police time is not wasted.

If I may, I'll use the following as illustrative of what we have achieved by the application of this approach.

You will all recall the tragic death of eleven year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in August 2007. Rhys, like so many others, was a completely innocent victim of gang violence.

Rightly, the case caused public outrage. The day after the shooting took place locally agreed police and CPS protocols were engaged and daily contact was maintained between the CPS Reviewing Crown Advocate, the Head of the Mersey-Cheshire Complex Casework Unit and the Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Superintendent and his investigating team.  The case involved complex legal, witness and disclosure issues and of course the investigation and subsequent prosecutions took place under an intense media spotlight, and therefore public scrutiny.

The prosecution team had to agree an approach in relation to one witness in particular which involved granting immunity from prosecution. This agreed approach paid dividends at the trial as the witness and the process invoked were not subject to challenge or distracting cross-examination on this point, allowing the court to concentrate on the facts of the case.  Similarly, tactics and processes for communication with witnesses and the deployment of special measures were agreed in advance. They were used extensively to ensure witnesses felt protected and comfortable about giving evidence. Significantly, given the nature of the case, no witness summonses were required and only one witness failed to attend the trial through fear.

Cooperation was not merely confined to legal and evidential issues, however. Close working between CPS and police press offices resulted in a joint media protocol being put in place to manage press requests for disclosure of material. Again, this was designed to be as even-handed and transparent as possible to build confidence and maintain an audit trail which relieved the trial team of the burden of dealing with such matters enabling them to focus on the presentation of evidence.  The commitment to joint working between investigators and prosecutors ensured that a robust and convincing case was built. The conviction of Sean Mercer and those who assisted him is testimony to the effectiveness of early, close and sustained police and CPS working throughout the lifecycle of a case. The outcome provided a strong reassurance to the public at large, but in particular the communities of Merseyside that witnesses came from.

You will also no doubt recall the case of the two boys accused of violent offences against other children in Edlington, near Doncaster last year.

Given the sensitive nature of the allegations and the publics concern regarding what had happened, it was essential that a prosecution team was formed early and effectively so that a real focus could be brought to ensuring that all relevant lines of enquiry were pursued and a strong case could be built that would stand the most exacting scrutiny, not only from the court, but also from the media.

The team successfully catered for the needs of the three young victims and their families by ensuring that they were supported and kept informed of decisions that were taken during the duration of the case. They also made sure that the rights of the young defendants were given full effect and that the prosecution did whatever was necessary to make sure that the defendants faced a fair trial.

The strong working relationship that the South Yorkshire Police built with the CPS Complex Casework Unit meant that the right charges were selected, supported by the evidence that had been gathered and a first class case was put and presented before the courts.

This model prosecution resulted in the defendants entering acceptable guilty pleas shortly before the trial was due to start.

Before moving on Id also like to pay tribute to those involved in the recent investigation and prosecution of Jon Venables.

This is another exemplar of early and close prosecution team building. Again, the case attracted huge public interest and media attention. The question from the start was whether Venables could receive a fair trial. CPS Special Crime Division lawyers were in daily contact with the police as the investigation progressed.

Once it was clear that charges would be brought, the strategy was to get the case before the trial judge as quickly as possible in order to minimise the dangers that publicity would bring.  Maintaining the tightest possible security around case information was essential. In the circumstances a Voluntary Bill of Indictment was used to bring the case to the Crown Court, bypassing normal committal proceedings.

During the investigation, and after the first set of charges were brought, the police made links between material discovered on a computer seized by the Metropolitan Police in 2008 and features of the online accounts used by Venables.  The police kept CPS informed of their progress in relation to that aspect of the case.  As a result, once the evidence was complete it was possible to move quickly to a further charging decision and consent was granted to a second Voluntary Bill of Indictment 2 days before the final hearing on 23 July.

On that date, Jon Venables pleaded guilty by video link to two offences of distributing indecent photographs of children and one of making indecent photographs of children and was sentenced to a total of two years imprisonment.

Having given these examples of our joint good practice, can I now look to the future.

Building on the prosecution team approach, I would like to suggest that the current economic climate, though daunting, offers us a real opportunity to look at all aspects of our joint business to see how we may better deliver justice. 

Crime presents ever-increasing challenges: in part because of the rapid pace of development in technology and communications; and in part because of the increased focus on crimes such as domestic violence, rape and hate c rimes. This results, quite rightly, in ever-higher expectations of the police and of the prosecution.

Our response to these challenges must be clear, coherent and consistent.

I have, I hope, demonstrated in my time as Director of Public Prosecutions that I consider the fragmented development of the various component parts of the Criminal Justice System as understandable but undesirable. It has led to a difficult operating environment where different indicators of success have been created, sometimes inadvertently, at the heart of the system which has, on occasion, served to stifle development and create tensions.

For too long we have been part of a criminal justice system. Every day thousands come into contact with our system and are met with varying levels of service. That needs to change. Criminal justice should not be a system; it should be a service. And developing criminal justice from a system to a service is now a priority.

The CPS has already taken an important step in transforming the criminal justice system into a criminal justice service by adopting a simple set of core quality standards setting out the quality of service that the public are entitled to expect from all those who deliver the prosecution service.

These standards are intended to apply across England and Wales and are important to victims, witnesses, suspects and defendants who depend on prosecutors to carry out their duties to a high standard.  The police, the courts and other criminal justice agencies will also want to understand the standards because they rely on prosecutors to deliver an efficient and effective service.  The public and those who superintend, audit and inspect prosecutors will want reassurance that the standards represent demanding and efficient means of delivering an important public service and will want to hold prosecutors to account for their delivery.

Through Core Quality Standards, I am determined to deliver a prosecution service that is professional, based on a public service ethos, and more focused on core quality.

Our criminal justice system relies entirely on those members of the public who are prepared to come forward to report crime and who are then prepared to support their police and prosecution services by giving evidence. We must never forget this.
Quality, of course, goes hand in hand with efficiency.

I said earlier that in the current economic climate we now have a real opportunity to look at all aspects of our joint business to see how we can improve delivery. We now have the opportunity to build on the secure foundation we have built so far.

Let me address three issues:  charging, early guilty pleas and the electronic case file.

As you all know, the prosecution and the police have moved to address the issues of access and speed of decision making raised in the joint HMIC/HMCPSI inspection of the Statutory Charging arrangements and, of course, take into account the reports by Sir Ronnie Flanagan and Jan Berry. In particular, we and ACPO have set up the Modernising Charging initiative.

The introduction of improved "daytime access" via the Solidus based instant access system is a model that provides greater economies of scale; ensuring quick and easy access to prosecutors within and across Force boundaries; quick turnarounds and a decision in the shortest time possible.

In that respect, I hope I have addressed some of the concerns made to us in recent months and years.

Prosecutors will, of course, still be available to give face-to-face advice in the more serious and complex cases, providing assurance and a better and more consistent service.

Work will continue on improving performance in accordance with the Joint Standards and Delivery Measures for Charging which will provide police and CPS with information on performance levels and identify areas of weaker performance.

Of course, HMCPSI also found that the quality of CPS pre-charge decision making needs to be improved. We have moved to address this through the Core Quality Standards. Standard 2 is concerned solely with the provision of timely and effective charging decisions. Our monitoring arrangements have been designed to assess the quality of decisions at individual, operational unit, Area and group levels and will drive up performance where this is required.

As for the division between the police and prosecutors of the charging function, the outcome of the current pilots in Essex, London, Thames Valley, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire will soon be announced concerning the return of charging responsibilities to the police for summary only and some either way offences.

Under the pilot scheme, the police are responsible for the charging decision in the following case categories:

All summary only offences regardless of plea (except those involving hate crime, domestic violence, motoring where a fatality occurs, terrorism offences and cases requiring the consent of the Attorney General and/or the Director of Public Prosecutions);

  • Criminal damage cases under £5000 in value, regardless of plea;
  • Handling stolen goods where a guilty plea is anticipated; and
  • Fraud Act 2006 offences where a guilty plea is anticipated.

Results from a recently received independent interim evaluation report show that the pilots are progressing well and are being well received. Charging decisions being made by the police are good particularly where effective police Gatekeeping and Evidence Review Officers and supervisors are in place and are not having an adverse impact on timeliness. 
A full evaluation report of the pilots will be produced in November this year.

Above all else, in my visits to CPS offices I hear and I see a real desire by police and CPS to make a success of the Modernising Charging arrangements so we improve accessibility, timeliness and the quality of charging decisions.

I will now deal with the issue of the Early Guilty Plea.  I do so against the background where the volume of cases going to the Crown Court continues to rise.

Of the 110,146 completed cases in the Crown Court last year, 73.5% resulted in the defendant pleading guilty without the need for a trial.  We need to stand back and consider that figure.  I believe that the extent to which the Crown Court is now predominately a sentencing court requires us to take a fresh look at how best to conduct business there.

In particular, guilty pleas need to be identified earlier, so that valuable time and resources, particularly at this time, can be concentrated on those cases which are actually going to result in a trial.

Let me support this point with some figures.

For the year 2009-10, the average percentage of cracked trials across England and Wales (i.e. those cases listed for trial but which do not proceed as trials because where the plea changed from Not Guilty to Guilty either on the day of trial or so shortly beforehand that the case was listed as a trial in any event), was 42.2%. The highest figure was in Northumbria, where 68.3% of cases listed and prepared for trial resulted in a changed plea on the day of trial. Whatever the benefits of cracked trials may be, this represents a considerable drain on the precious resources of the police and prosecution.

It takes many hours of police and prosecution time to prepare a case so that it is trial ready; many more hours than it takes to prepare a case for a guilty plea.  Every time a defendant changes plea from not guilty to guilty on the first day of trial, those many hours of extra work are wasted.

If this happens at a rate of almost every other case ie the current 42.2% of volume we have a very real problem that we need to deal with.

The Crown Court Early Guilty Plea Scheme Pilot Project (EGP) is intended to help us address this problem and it is a good example of cross-CJS collaborative working that will benefit all. As many of you will know a similar scheme has been running in Liverpool for over a year.

Nationally, the Senior Presiding Judge is leading the process designed to produce an effective and prompt disposal of Crown Court guilty pleas. As a large proportion of cases committed and sent to the Crown Court result in guilty pleas, the scheme which is currently in its scoping phase - aims to identify these at an early stage, separate these cases into bespoke Early Guilty Plea Courts and expedite the plea and sentence, thereby producing a just, expeditious and cost effective outcome. This reduces anxiety of victims, by giving certainty as to whether they will be required to give evidence. It also, especially, prevents unnecessary police and CPS file build in preparing a trial file.

It also frees Court, Police and CPS time to be able to concentrate on contested matters and reduces prosecution and defence case preparation, thus producing efficiency savings for all the Criminal Justice agencies.

This is an issue which has been there for a long time. We have walked around it for a long time and now is the time to deal with it.

Let me turn to the electronic case file.

In my view one of the most important transformational developments we have the opportunity to pursue now is the move to the electronic case file.  For far too long the criminal justice system has been a paper based system.  That is no longer sustainable and it is high time for the electronic case file and electronic case management systems to become the main currency in the criminal justice service.

The electronic case file is the next logical progression in the achievement of this aim, and we are currently piloting this approach as local, collaborative projects agreed at Local Criminal Justice Board level. This is an important step and I am a firm believer that the whole of the criminal justice service should harness every opportunity afforded by information technology.  You will be glad to know that I am not proposing an all singing all dancing IT system.  The evidence we are gathering from the local initiatives suggests that there is an opportunity to join up the existing systems without having to go back to the drawing board and procure expensive new IT systems.

The Police and CPS are in the vanguard of development here. For example, in Wales good progress is being made to establish an electronic case file and work is progressing in other sites to develop the two-way electronic interface between police and CPS offices. In London the CPS has given the police full access to the CPS case management system to usher in the concept of the Integrated Prosecution Team which takes advantage of our current knowledge and information management systems in the most cost effective and efficient manner.

Once we have a basic digital file we can think radically about how we collectively deliver our business. A proper IT-enabled environment affords a real opportunity for the criminal justice agencies to work together. It is also wholly consistent with my central theme of providing a service as opposed to merely operating a system.

Everyone involved in delivering criminal justice needs to move forward together. Without the active involvement of those who deliver criminal justice and those who rely on it to keep them safe, we will not develop and improve.

There is much to be proud of in those who deliver modern criminal justice in the police, and prosecution service. We are all fortunate to work with people who are motivated by the concept of public service and inspired by the chance to make a difference to peoples lives in terms of criminal justice.

Clearly, we are entering a challenging period but as I said earlier, though daunting, the challenge presents opportunities as well.

One of the opportunities I would like to pursue, founded on the already considerable police/CPS interface, is a regular dialogue with your Association to help inform CPS strategy and planning in the future. Your pivotal position in the public protection and law enforcement environment makes it essential that we, as prosecutors, have an open and constructive dialogue with you to help drive forward mutual agendas and influence change from the operational police and prosecution practitioner perspective.

I hope you will feel able to take me up on this and I look forward to working closely with you and your Association in future.

Keir Starmer QC, 15 September 2010