Prosecutions and the public - Redesigning Justice: Promoting civil rights, trust and fairness

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Speech by Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, to the Howard League for Penal Reform

Introduction

Good morning, it's a pleasure to be here.

Promoting trust and fairness is central to the strategy of the Crown Prosecution Service. So I am grateful for the opportunity to explain our work in this area, and how we will develop it further in the coming years.

The CPS is often described as the gatekeeper of the criminal justice system - we decide who is charged and with which offence. We rely, of course, on the police investigation. And as we prosecute cases in court many other parts of the system have a big impact. But by acting as this gatekeeper our decisions play an important role in shaping how justice is delivered.

And that is a responsibility we take incredibly seriously.

It's vital we make the right decisions - AND that the public trust that we are fair and deliver justice. But how do we do that?

Engaging with the public

We aim to ensure that our decisions are open and transparent, so we explain our decisions - to those involved, and where appropriate to the wider public. The CPS is a very different organisation now to the one I joined in 1986 where we talked to no-one.

But that in itself is not enough. So we also engage with the public to help shape how we make those important decisions. Obviously each casework decision is for us but feedback on how we approach our work, understand issues and the public interest factors is something we benefit from hearing.

Indeed, the way in which we engage with communities has led to the development of a number of service and policy improvements.

  • We hold National Scrutiny Panels, comprised of experts from academia, NGOs and community groups. They have been instrumental in refreshing our public statements in relation to different forms of hate crime and crimes against older people. These public statements set out our approach to prosecuting these offences, and emphasise our commitment to doing so. Taking into consideration the views of communities affected by hate crime ensures that our approach is sensitive to their experiences and perceptions.
    • For example, the National Scrutiny Panel on disability hate crime included the National Autistic Society; Lemos and Crane; the Equality and Human Rights Commission; Dimensions UK; MIND; and Stop Hate UK. As a direct result of their feedback, our policy now acknowledges the social model of disability as a valuable tool in removing barriers to justice; highlights that labelling disabled people as 'vulnerable' is unwelcome; and provides new guidance on the support available to disabled victims of crime.
  • Similarly, we have Local Scrutiny Panels across England and Wales – attended by local community representatives who reflect local concerns. They have played an important role in feeding back issues to local staff to improve casework quality and support for victims and witnesses. They have also worked with us to develop and deliver training to our prosecutors and caseworkers and helped to improve the accessibility of our communications with victims. Panel members also take back messages to their own communities.  
  • And at a wider level we hold public consultations on key pieces of guidance we develop for our prosecutors. Our guidance on offences committed on social media is just one recent example where we have benefitted from external views in shaping how we tackle a new and fast-moving area of offending.

Our record

So we have a strong record in this area, though there is of course more that we can do.

We are particularly aware that BAME communities may be particularly lacking in trust and confidence, not just in the CPS, but in the wider CJS. We have therefore invested for a number of years in engaging with communities, listening to their feedback, and explaining our decisions.

And there is no doubt that community engagement can make a difference. For example, very recently, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for London North attended a meeting with a number of Muslim community representatives. They had some questions regarding recent high-profile cases which had affected the Muslim community, their perception of the CJS, and their views of CPS decision-making. By taking the time to go to the community and meet with them, the CCP was able to explain our decision-making in detail. They were able to scrutinise it and ask questions. This type of meeting is very positive – we can reflect on what we've heard, and benefit from their insights.

We also welcome the views of our stakeholders on how we can improve the ways in which we explain our work to the public.

Recently, the Rt Hon David Lammy MP's review of disproportionality in the CJS raised a number of issues regarding the way in which we ensure that justice is delivered for everyone.

First of all, David Lammy found that CPS decisions are fair and proportionate. He also noted that our community engagement work is excellent. He praised our approach to external scrutiny and inclusion, saying "Other CJS institutions should learn lessons from the CPS, including openness to external scrutiny, systems of internal oversight, and an unusually diverse workforce within the wider CJS."

However, Mr Lammy also made an important observation, which we must always bear closely in mind when considering our own performance in the CPS.

He said that the public experience of the CJS as a whole and not as a series of distinct agencies - and so disproportionality in any one part of the system - can reinforce negative perceptions of all of it.

In the CPS, we recognise that we work within a CJS which some perceive as being unfair and which produces disproportionate outcomes for some communities. We place considerable importance on working with colleagues in the wider CJS to identify and remove bias and disproportionality.

Improving our performance

We want to continue to improve how we promote public confidence through community engagement. So we recently commissioned an independent expert review of our work in this area.

The review was comprehensive, covering not only our approach to community engagement work, but also our work on internal inclusion, in recognition that having a diverse workforce makes us a better organisation – as well as promoting public confidence by reflecting the public we serve.

The review found that we have very strong foundations:

  • We have implemented a range of positive initiatives on internal inclusion, and there is a clear willingness to be open to discussion and engagement, particularly with our staff networks, trade unions and external scrutiny panels.
  • Our Local Scrutiny and Involvement Panels (LSIPs) are considered to be an effective way to ensure that local communities can input into CPS work, helping the CPS to support victims and witnesses and deliver justice locally and nationally.
  • And in general, the review found we are 'very receptive', valuing stakeholder contributions, and are flexible in the way we provide opportunities for stakeholders to share their views on specific issues.  This includes, for example, convening National Scrutiny Panels where we believe it is necessary to gather the views of particular stakeholders. Last year, we convened a National Scrutiny Panel with stakeholders from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to identify and address their issues of concern.

However, the review also identified areas where we could improve:

  • Our Community Accountability Forum (CAF) was originally intended to bring together diverse voices from third sector organisations to hold the CPS to account against the Public Sector Equality Duty. It has generally been useful, but we need to look at it again - to make sure we give our community stakeholders a voice on aspects of our work linked to community engagement and inclusion, from the development and implementation of policies, and giving them oversight of our work in this area.
  • We also recognise that learning from community engagement should flow through the CPS more effectively, with best practice in CPS Areas being escalated to an organisational level more effectively.
  • Finally, the review highlighted that the ways in which the CPS communicates with community stakeholders and the wider public should be modernised, taking advantage of new technology where appropriate.

Leading in the CJS

Following our external review, we will shortly publish our revised inclusion and community engagement strategy. It will outline in detail how we intend to lead CJS efforts to improve public confidence.

And I am proud that we are today becoming the first public body to sign up to a new charter committing to treat families bereaved by major disasters in a sensitive and transparent manner.

The 'Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy' was developed by Bishop James Jones after speaking with families impacted by the Hillsborough disaster.

Being the first public body to sign up to this charter reaffirms the CPS commitment to provide victims and witnesses with information, assistance and support throughout the prosecution process - and is another example of us learning from communities to improve our service.

Closing

The CPS is already a leader in community engagement, but we are not complacent.

We recognise that there is more that we can do, and we want to play a leading role in driving improvements in openness and transparency in the CJS.

We have opened ourselves up to independent scrutiny to further improve our work in this area. Encouragingly, that scrutiny suggests we should build on our approach to date, rather than ripping it up and starting again.

But that doesn't mean we won't consider further - or more radical - reform if it is needed. Crucially, our approach will mean we are constantly gathering feedback - so we can take action where it is needed.

We will act on feedback, and the experiences of our communities, to help ensure that the public has confidence that our decisions are fair.

Thank you.