DPP Speech to the Bar Council – 14 July 2020
Hello and thank you for having me. Firstly I’d like to offer my apologies that I am not able to attend every meeting of the Bar Council, but rest assured I do appreciate the Bar Council and our CPS representatives attend keep me updated.
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that 2020 has not looked like we thought it might for any of us.
The Coronavirus pandemic has put an enormous spanner in the works - we've seen court buildings closed, trials postponed and an ever mounting number of cases building up. We cannot underestimate the enormous impact that has had and will continue to have on both our profession and on the criminal justice system as a whole.
At the same time, the implications of the pandemic have pushed us to make some important changes, bringing forward improvements which had seemed a very long way off. Our extensive use of technology to conduct remote hearings is a case in point.
Today I want to talk about three things:
- The CPS response to the Coronavirus pandemic;
- The way we’ve been working with you during this period;
- And finally a reflection on the challenges still to come and how we might approach those together.
The CPS response to the pandemic
A few weeks ago our Inspectorate, HMCPSI, released their report into the CPS response to the Coronavirus pandemic between March and May. I'm pleased to say and I’m not shy to say, that the Inspectorate found a lot to commend.
One thing the report highlights is that a large part of our ability to respond quickly to the pandemic was the result of forward thinking and planning, not just this year but over the past five years, what we call the CPS 2020 strategy.
I tell you this not simply because I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done at the CPS, though of course I am, but because I think one implication of this crisis has been to bring home to the criminal justice sector, as a whole, the importance of having a robust and ambitious strategic vision - for how we all want to work and how we all want to work together.
HMCPSI noted that the pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation across the criminal justice system and it's crucial that we build on the relationships formed with our partners at this crucial time and continue to work collaboratively to find better ways of delivering justice.
That said, our primary focus has always been the safety of the people who work for us - and that expressly includes not just our staff but also external advocates. Health and wellbeing has and will continue to come first.
How we’re working with the Bar
So on how we are working with the Bar, I do not underestimate the effect the pandemic is having on you, I’m pleased we were able to move quickly early on to mitigate some of the impacts this could have had on the Bar. Within the first week of lockdown, we were able to announce a series of immediate temporary changes to our fee schemes to bring forward payment in ongoing cases and maintain steady cash flow to you as best we could. Most notably, we created a completely new upfront Covid Fee for disrupted trial cases.
As a result, we maintained pre-lockdown payment levels between March and June; just considering how stretched we all were during those three months I do suggest that was a remarkable achievement given the challenges we have all faced.
Then, at the end of April, we agreed a Statement of Principles on how we would work with the Bar both during the pandemic and as we recover. A series of practical steps relating to issues such as safety, case progression and addressing the backlog also featured and have formed the basis for constructive conversations held locally between Circuit Leaders and CPS colleagues.
As the Principles make clear, the CPS and the Bar have a long tradition of working closely together and we will continue to do so. So let me mention the lawyer secondment opportunities we actually announced yesterday; they are the most recent example of this and offer Advocate Panel members at level 1 and 2 the chance to join us on fixed term appointments of between three and six months. This presents a great opportunity for those at the junior end to get first-hand experience of our work and will provide invaluable support to the CPS over the short-to-medium term.
But of course Coronavirus hasn’t been our only concern and we’ve continued to deal with some business as usual.
Advocate Panel refresh
We’ve recently completed the first phase of a refresh of our Advocate Panel for General Crime and RASSO.
I am pleased to say this year 81% of advocates have been invited to join the new Panels without the need to re-apply. This is a significantly higher proportion than when we ran the exercise back in 2016 and reflects both the health of the Panel arrangements and the positive impact of recent fee increases.
Advocates not automatically invited can re-apply in September, when we will also launch our new online application process. In support of this, we are delivering a series of remote training sessions for the first time - and they have proved to be popular, with more than 300 people enrolled.
Diversity in criminal law
We have also been working jointly with the Bar Council and Women in Criminal Law on diversity. Although this work has actually been ongoing for a number of months now, its importance has been brought into even sharper focus by the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.
Our CPS 2025 strategy, published in April, includes a very clear commitment to lead the public sector in terms of the equality and diversity of our workforce and to ensure that the communities we serve can see themselves reflected in us. This is equally important for those we instruct to prosecute on our behalf; we’ve already put together an advocate diversity action plan and we are committed to doing all we can to promote inclusivity and equality of opportunity.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the criminal justice system will never be the same.
Even as more courts start to open and more trials are listed, the world we’re going back to looks very different to before.
Whilst, and I repeat, we must and will continue to prioritise safety, that has implications for our physical presence in court, we must also begin to grapple with the backlog. To do that effectively we’ll need to drive our capacity beyond what it was at the beginning of this year. That will only be possible through a new model, combining both remote and in-person work, to harness the benefits of recent changes while maintaining the space and structures we need to ensure the proper and effective functioning of justice.
I am very grateful, let me say, for the way the Bar Council, Criminal Bar Association and Law Society have worked so constructively with us to plan for recovery. Again Amanda, thank you for mentioning this at the start of the meeting.
In relation to other criminal justice proposals, for example restrictions on jury numbers or even non-jury trials, if either were to occur, I hope you will understand that it is not our role as civil servants to take a position. We of course recognise that there are likely to be principled arguments and different positions across the sector, but it’s important for us to maintain both our independence from government as well as our impartiality as civil servants.
It is our aim to continue the cross-organisational working, which we’ve ramped up over the last few months, to make sure that we can accommodate and manage changes and decisions as they come.
The last few months have been incredibly difficult for us all, and I say that both personally and professionally, so I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you. There do remain some huge challenges and I think we can all agree that there is a lot we still need to process about what has happened over the last few months.
But having said all off that, there is real opportunity ahead - to improve how we work, how we work together and how we effectively prosecute cases and deliver justice across the country. I look forward to working with you all on all of this in the coming months.
Thank you again and I will stay on the call for the duration of the meeting.