HC Deb 17 November 1995 vol 267 cc310-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ottaway.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

I am grateful for the opportunity of this short debate to raise issues relating to the Crown Prosecution Service's actions and to my constituency. In the past 12 months, I have become increasingly concerned about complaints that I have received from constituents who have been the victims of crime, but who have seen the case against the perpetrator of that crime dropped by the CPS. In some of the cases, the charges were dropped or not pursued before a court hearing and the victim was informed by a standard letter, either from the CPS or the police. In other cases, the victims have never been informed.

Many people not only in my constituency but throughout the country are alarmed at the continual increase in crime. Many victims of crime have lost faith in the police service, which they view as powerless to prevent the increases. It is becoming apparent, however, that many people are losing faith in the Crown Prosecution Service and in the criminal justice system as the CPS drops cases where the police have successfully caught and identified the culprit and brought charges.

Some of the letters that I have received in the past 12 months bear witness to some people's despair at the actions of the Crown Prosecution Service and to my constituents' loss of confidence in it. I shall quote from three of those letters to show my constituents' depth of feeling, one of whom writes: Because we are pensioners the CPS must think we do not deserve justice". Another writes: I am a British citizen and up to now had complete faith in the British system of justice—my faith in the justice system has gone". The final one writes: By now I am dissatisfied and have no faith in the legal system. Those quotations are alarming and sad. It is depressing that people are losing their faith in the criminal justice system and the CPS.

It is apparent that the police force is becoming increasingly frustrated by the action—or inaction—of the Crown Prosecution Service because, after all, its hard work in detecting crime and in prosecuting criminals is thrown away by the CPS when cases are not pursued in court. The police are criticised by the public for not being able to identify criminals and for rising crime. When they do identify criminals, they are criticised again when the CPS drops a case. It appears that the police force is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

In some cases, the decision not to pursue a case is justified. The two main areas are set out in detail in the code of conduct for Crown prosecutors: lack of evidence and cases where a prosecution would not be in the public interest. Some cases are impossible to prove—for example, because no witnesses are available or because their attendance would involve tremendous expense. Unfortunately, I am becoming increasingly convinced that some cases are dropped because it is convenient for the Crown Prosecution Service to do so, because of the cost to the public purse or because of an unwillingness to pursue a case in court unless a conviction is assured.

A case has been brought to my attention that concerns a defendant who was due to appear in court on the same day as he was due to face charges for earlier offences. The two sets of charges were brought together at one hearing. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to the original charges but informed his solicitor, who then informed the CPS, that he would plead not guilty to the latter charges. The latter charges were then dropped. It was thought by the Crown Prosecution Service that the earlier charges gave a full range of sentencing options.

I do not see how the earlier charges could have provided a full range of sentencing options in relation to the latter charges, as the magistrates were not aware of those charges because they had been dropped on that day. The defendant could be charged only with the original offence, and therefore could be sentenced only for that. Because the two sets of charges were combined on the same day, the defendant walked out of court scot-free of the latter charges. Had there been two distinct court hearing dates, by the time the second charges were brought and the court appearance made the defendant could have faced even more serious penalties—perhaps imprisonment—because of the earlier conviction. In the circumstances, however, he walked from court entirely free of the latter charges. I fear that the Crown Prosecution Service simply could not be bothered to pursue the latter charges.

I suspect that cases are also being dropped because it is too costly to pursue them through the courts. Whether they are of a complex or minor nature, the question arises whether the CPS should pursue them because of the cost involved.

Certainty of conviction is an issue that is beginning to worry me substantially. The code of practice states that the test on certainty is that a jury or bench of magistrates properly directed in accordance with the law is more likely than not to convict a defendant of the charges alleged. I fear that the Crown Prosecution Service is interpreting that definition to mean that it should pursue cases only if there is certainty of conviction.

Cases that pass the evidentiary and public interest tests, but where the evidence is finely balanced, are not pursued because there is no certainty of conviction. It is up to the magistrates or the jury to decide on the evidence and weigh up the pros and cons of a case. It is not for a jury or bench merely to concur with the certainties referred to it by the Crown Prosecution Service in cases where a conviction is assured. The idea of a criminal justice system is that a magistrate or jury has the right to judge each case on its merits.

I shall illustrate one or two of those points by reference to actual cases and to the code itself. I am unable to raise one case because of the sub judice rule, but the Solicitor-General is aware of the case and of my concern.

A constituent of mine, Mr. S. Doherty, was involved in the case, where two charges were brought. A man was charged with criminal damage and theft from Mr. Doherty's vehicle. The man had been arrested after being chased by a police constable at 4 o'clock in the morning. As luck would have it, the incident occurred less than a quarter of a mile from Barnsley police station and the police constable was on duty in the vicinity and was able to apprehend the defendant. The police constable was alerted by the alarm from Mr. Doherty's car or from his neighbour's car.

The culprit was caught in possession of stolen property from the vehicles and in possession of tools for breaking and entering. He was charged to appear in court on the same day as he was due to appear on other charges for driving with a forged instrument and driving without insurance. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to the charges of driving without documents and insurance, but not guilty to theft and criminal damage. The guilty plea was accepted and the theft and criminal damage charges were dropped. The Crown Prosecution Service says that the prosecutor decided that it was right for him to accept the guilty plea because he was aware that the magistrates had a full range of sentencing options. I do not agree. The court had not heard the charges of theft and criminal damage, because they had been dropped, and it could not pass a sentence to reflect those charges. The full range of sentencing options was available only in relation to the earlier charges.

The evidential and public interest tests were satisfied, but the reason given for dropping the theft and criminal damage charges was that the prosecutor was rightly conscious of the public interest in securing the defendant's disqualification from driving at the earliest opportunity. However, I do not understand the public interest in disqualifying him from driving when he had been charged with theft and criminal damage. That is equivalent to saying that it is okay for the defendant to steal what he wants as long as he does not drive to do it. He was on foot when he was caught. How disqualification from driving has any relation to the theft charges is beyond me. Why was it in the public interest for the defendant to be merely disqualified for driving with a forged instrument— I presume, a forged driving licence—and with no insurance. It is beyond me that anyone can believe that a disqualification order for two years will stop that individual driving in defiance of the ban. He has walked away from court scot-free on the charges of theft and criminal damage because they were dropped.

What about the public interest in deterring theft? Car crime is as bad in Barnsley as anywhere else in the country. In Barnsley, car thieves are called the "twoc" squads—taking without the owner's consent. Young guys wearing full-face crash helmets steal vehicles solely for the purpose of racing against police cars. A constituent of mine stole the Home Secretary's car while he was visiting a police conference in Sheffield—that is how rife car theft is in my area. Paragraph 6.4(n) of the code states that the offence, although not serious in itself, can be classed as serious if it is "widespread in the area". My view is that car crime and theft from vehicles is widespread in my area. That factor should have been taken into account when the decision to drop the charges was made.

What about compensation for Mr. Doherty for the hundreds of pounds worth of damage to his vehicle and property? That was not even considered by the prosecutor when he took the decision in court. I believe that for reasons of convenience, cost and uncertainty, those charges were dropped, and no thought whatever was given to the victim of the crime. The defendant already had a court date for the charges of driving without insurance and documents, but the magistrates were not aware of the theft charges and could sentence only on the earlier charges. So that chap has got away scot-free, which is disgraceful.

I shall briefly mention two other cases that have been brought to my attention. First, Mrs. Edith Clegg of Kendray was assaulted, but the case was not pursued; the individual concerned was not even cautioned. That was a weaker case than that involving Mr. Doherty, and it was dropped on the evidential criteria. None the less, it was another crime of violence not pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service—hence Mrs. Clegg's loss of confidence in the CPS.

Mr. Crossland intervened to try to stop another person assaulting a girlfriend. Unfortunately, the assailant turned on him, and beat him so severely that he was hospitalised. Despite the fact that there were witnesses—the offence took place in a public park—that case was dropped too.

Yet paragraph 6.4(b) of the code of practice refers to violence … during the commission of the offence", and sub-paragraph (h) refers to someone's having "suffered personal attack". Those are given as reasons for a prosecution to be brought.

Finally, Mrs. Dunderdale of Royston made four separate inquiries about her case, which involved a dangerous dog. The dog's owner was to be prosecuted, but despite her many inquiries Mrs. Dunderdale was not informed about four different adjournments of the case. After about eight months, the case was dropped, yet Mrs. Dunderdale is still awaiting official confirmation that it is not to be continued.

The actions of the Crown Prosecution Service are demoralising the police and the public. I ask the Solicitor-General to consider a review of the code of practice to strengthen it or to give the CPS guidelines on interpretation, so as to allay some of the fears that I have mentioned. I hope that he will be able to reassure my constituents and me that the CPS is acting properly and in their interests, not in the interests of economy and convenience.

2.46 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Derek Spencer)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate, which raises an important matter for his constituents and for the public at large. It gives me the opportunity, which I intend to take, to explain in general terms how the Crown Prosecution Service approaches the decision to prosecute, after which I shall deal with some of the individual cases to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Since 1986, following the recommendations of the Philips royal commission, we have split the investigation of offences and their prosecution into two and allocated separate responsibility for the two processes. The police are responsible for investigating and charging; the Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for handling the prosecution.

In any case the decision to prosecute is a serious step. Fair and firm prosecution is essential to the maintenance of law and order, but in every case there are serious implications for all involved, especially for the victim and the defendant. Each case that the police send to the Crown Prosecution Service is reviewed by a Crown prosecutor to ensure that it meets the tests set out in "The Code for Crown Prosecutors"—the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the code, 40,000 or 50,000 copies of which have been distributed to the various law enforcement agencies, contains two tests. The first is the evidential test and the second is the public interest test. The first one to be applied is the evidential test and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it means that a jury or bench of magistrates, properly directed in accordance with the law, must be more likely than not to convict the defendant of the charge alleged. By no stretch of the imagination can that test be converted into one of certainty. It means what it says. All lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service are trained to apply it and the police know full well what the test is. The CPS in different parts of the country is engaged in training programmes to ensure that the test is applied by the police service.

The next test that has to be applied is that of public interest, which raises a variety of factors, many of which are set out in the code. In an ideal world it would be possible to identify the correct charge from the outset, but in practice it is often necessary to amend or add charges and even on occasion to withdraw proceedings completely. The most common cause for that is that the police are not always in full possession of the facts when they charge a defendant. Obviously, when the custody officer is in the custody suite deciding whether to prefer a charge, not as much will be known about the case as when, sometimes weeks after the event, the reviewing lawyer has the full file. It is to their credit that custody officers succeed in selecting the right charge in a high proportion of cases.

When the case comes to the CPS it is the first time that a qualified lawyer's mind is applied to it. If the hon. Gentleman considers for a moment, he will realise that it is no answer to say to a lawyer—who is bringing his professional judgment to bear on a case and who has said that there is no case—that an unqualified person, whether it be the victim, witnesses or even the police, does not think that the lawyer is right.

The crux of the matter—the division between responsibility for investigating and prosecuting—means that Parliament has allocated to the CPS, and to no one else, the exclusive responsibility for deciding whether cases are in a fit state to proceed. For the witnesses, the public, the defendants, and still less for the police, there is no point in allowing a case to proceed to its sure and certain demise in court when any lawyer can see that it is unsatisfactory. Such action would be a waste of everyone's time and an abuse of the procedures in court.

I shall remind the hon. Gentleman of the wise words of the Philips royal commission, which stated: A police officer who carries out an investigation, inevitably and properly, forms a view as to the guilt of the suspect. Having done so without any improper motive, he may be inclined to shut his mind to other evidence telling against the guilt of the suspect or to over-estimate the strength of the evidence he has assembled. The hon. Gentleman may wish to keep that quotation in mind.

The idea that professionally qualified lawyers in the CPS do not care about their cases and are trying to save money is an affront. Such criticisms are insulting and abusive to them, especially when couched in general, vague terms.

The hon. Gentleman might like to have regard to the morale of the Crown Prosecution Service when it is subjected to such unjustified criticisms. Lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service prosecute about 1.4 million cases in the magistrates court each year and there are complaints in only a tiny minority. It would be a very strange world if there were no complaints at all.

I turn now to the cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is not usual to debate in public the decisions reached in individual criminal cases, especially when it has been decided not to proceed. It is usually unfair to suspects and witnesses to engage in such an activity because it tends to mean that they are tried at the bar of public opinion without the protection that is afforded by due process of law. However, the hon. Gentleman raised the cases, so I must deal with them.

The first case concerned the hon. Gentleman's constituent, Mr. Doherty. The defendant was charged, as a result of an offence involving Mr. Doherty's car, with stealing an inspection lamp valued at about £2. That was the sole charge preferred arising out of the incident. As the hon. Gentleman said, the defendant subsequently appeared in court on 18 July and the solicitor representing him offered to plead guilty to three offences of no insurance arising out of other facts and the offence of possessing a false instrument—a copy of a vehicle excise licence that the defendant knew or believed to be false, contrary to section 5(2) of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981.

The lawyer decided to accept the pleas because he judged that it would give the sentencing court a full range of options. In plain English, that means that it was open to the court to sentence the defendant—who had previous convictions—to a maximum of six months in prison on the charges to which he pleaded guilty. That is what we mean when we say that it gave rise to a full range of sentencing options. The defendant was fined £800, ordered to pay £50 costs and disqualified from driving for two years.

That was a difficult decision made under considerable pressure. I have read the correspondence between the hon. Gentleman and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I wished to discuss the case with her further, but, unfortunately, I have been unable to do so as she is absent from her office for two weeks. I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that, on her return, we shall examine the matter further to see what lessons can be learned. I shall then write to the hon. Gentleman about that.

The hon. Gentleman raised a second case involving a Mrs. Clegg. In summary, the evidence revealed a complaint by Mrs. Clegg and a flat denial by the other party. Two witnesses to the incident were interviewed and they did not confirm Mrs. Clegg's account. Accordingly, the CPS discontinued the proceedings with the consent of the police.

The hon. Gentleman referred to two other cases, the first of which involved his constituent, Mr. Crossland, and an assault in a recreation ground—in many respects, it was very similar to the case involving Mrs. Clegg. The opposing parties gave two quite conflicting accounts and the CPS decided to discontinue the case—again with the consent of the police.

The case to which the hon. Gentleman referred involving a stolen car is sub judice, but the initial discontinuance had the consent of the police. In three out of the four cases there was no dispute between the police and the CPS. I believe that it is quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to say that the police are disillusioned and demoralised by the judgments of the CPS in those and numerous other cases.

As I travel around the country, I meet police officers in police stations, administrative justice support units and so on. They are full of respect for the work of the Crown Prosecution Service. It is interesting to examine the level of discontinuance.

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o 'clock.

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