HL Deb 24 May 2004 vol 661 cc1045-8

Baroness Whitaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to improve the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in bringing offenders to justice.

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

My Lords, the CPS programme of major reform will put prosecutors at the heart of the criminal justice system from charge to sentence and increase the number of offences brought to justice. The cornerstone is the new charging scheme, under which prosecutors take on the responsibility for charging suspects, which has already been shown to improve criminal justice. In addition, there is greater support for victims and witnesses, a new COMPASS IT system, new and improved working relationships with the police and other agencies, community engagement, specialist prosecutors and an enhanced role at each stage of the justice process.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that comprehensive Answer. But perhaps I may press him more on the role of the CPS as regards death in custody. There used to be a number of occasions when the families of people who died while in custody were left in the dark. They were not sure what was happening and a great amount of distress and perhaps unfairness was thereby caused. Can my noble friend tell me that things are improving now?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important issue. Death in custody is a matter of enormous concern for the family and friends of the person who died, but it is also a matter of public confidence. I am glad to say that the Crown Prosecution Service is implementing all the changes that I recommended in my review of prosecution practices in relation to deaths in custody in July 2003. It includes faster and more open decision-making—my noble friend is right to refer to that issue as important—the personal involvement of the director in all cases and the family being kept much more up to date on the key decisions.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, on looking at the Question, is it to be assumed that an accused on a complaint is to be treated as an offender until he has been tried and convicted? Are we to assume that the Crown Prosecution Service should prosecute when there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction? I refer to the Question.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, no. Certainly, a person will not be treated as an offender until that person is convicted, if he is. But the expressions offences brought to justice" and bringing "offenders to justice", are, of course, what the criminal justice system is about. It also ensures that people who are not offenders do not have to face the courts at all.

So far as the second part of the question is concerned, the Crown Prosecution Service will continue to prosecute only in cases where there is a realistic prospect of conviction and where it is in the public interest to do so. But it is important that when the CPS does that, it does it as efficiently and effectively as it can. This major programme of change will make that happen.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General referred briefly to his yob-busting initiative in his Answer. But he said nothing about the fact that three weeks ago he announced that designated caseworkers were to have a wide and novel right of audience in the lower courts—for example, the magistrates' courts. Is it right, as the First Division Association has said, that only two extra days' training is to be allocated to those caseworkers in order to carry out that task? What does it do to the reputation of the CPS to have people who are not professionally qualified, and who do not answer to any professional code of conduct, conducting cases in such sensitive areas as domestic violence, racial aggravation and youth justice after plea and conviction? Is that not just another cost-cutting initiative which is not in the interests of justice?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, it is absolutely not. It is important that we use the resources that are at our disposal in an effective way. All the magistrates to whom I talked about the quality and standard of the work that has been done by the designated caseworkers uniformly praised the work that they have done. I announced a rationalisation and an increase in their powers so that they can do work that is well within their capability. That will free fully qualified lawyers to do the important work, which it is for them to do.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, there are a number of cases in which offenders—for example, drug dealers—against whom good evidence has been garnered by the police are prosecuted by a busy lawyer who, in many respects, is a junior. Inevitably, the drug dealer, with all his money, is defended by an eminent QC, such as abound in this House. Is that not grossly unfair? It has led to certain miscarriages of justice that I could mention.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I certainly do not accept, if that is the tenor of the noble Lord's question, that cases are failing as a result of the inadequacies of those who prosecute them. I am sure that that is not the case. However, I accept that it is always important to keep it well in mind that the state—the prosecution service—has at its disposal the right resources to be able to protect the public, because that is what it is about. It should not be outgunned by those who have greater resources and are able to defend themselves in that way.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is there any parallel with employment tribunals, on which I served as a member for many years? I am referring to the question from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. It was splendid if someone represented themselves at a tribunal or had a friend represent them, and it was equally good if they had a fully qualified legal person representing them. Unfortunately, however, there arose a home-grown industry, equivalent to cut-price lawyers, who defended people who were under the impression that they were getting really experienced representation. Is this likely to happen in this respect? Is there likely to be a growth industry of semi-qualified people who lead people into believing that they are capable of representing them?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I am horrified at the prospect of cut-price lawyers anywhere at all. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that the situation in the magistrates' courts, where the designated caseworkers operate, is not like that. These are people who are trained—sufficiently, adequately and fully—to do their job. At present, caseworkers do a list in the magistrates' court, but when it comes to something that they are not allowed to do, the case has to be adjourned or put into another court or a lawyer has to be brought in to deal with it when everyone in court, including the caseworker and the magistrate, knows that that person is perfectly able to deal with the case. That is why it is important to make this change.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, there was a time when cut-price lawyers were in fact being used. As a result, the imbalance between the very young who were prepared to accept the cut prices and defending counsel was so marked and the consequences for the administration of justice so bad that you had to review the fees of those whom the CPS retained. You did it, of course, by paying defence counsel less so that you could pay the prosecuting counsel the right fee.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, this Government—this party—made it a manifesto commitment that we would level the playing field and give the public the same access to lawyers by bringing prosecution fees up to those that the defence were paid. We did that, and we have equalised the situation. So the graduated fee scheme, which is at the heart of the legal aid system for many cases and which applied to defence counsel, has now been operated and is also in force for prosecuting counsel. So we equalised the fees not by cutting defence fees but by bringing prosecution fees up, and prosecution fees have increased as a result.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, following on from that last question, is there any prospect of a resolution of the dispute over defence fees in very high cost criminal cases which has led to a number of senior members of the Bar withholding their services?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, these matters are very much within the jurisdiction of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. However, as he will also know, it was announced that a review of very high-cost cases is taking place, to be completed by the end of this month. I have no doubt that, once that review is complete and discussions have taken place, my noble and learned friend will announce what its consequences are.

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