Anger over `lay prosecutors' plans

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The Independent Online
A PLAN to train members of the public to prosecute cases in magistrates' courts was condemned by civil rights groups yesterday as a move that could lead to wrongful convictions.

New "lay prosecutors" are to be introduced by the Crown Prosecution Service in courts across the country from November. They will prosecute only in non-contested cases after they have had training with the CPS. The majority will be CPS staff but a CPS spokesman confirmed it would consider recruiting suitable people from outside the service.

Lawyers have warned that the proposals would mean people who plead guilty, many of whom are unrepresented by a solicitor, could be convicted without a legally qualified person being present.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, said although cases may look straightforward new facts may materialise that could have a bearing on the guilty plea of the defendant. This new evidence, said Mr Wadham, required consideration by a lawyer.

The Criminal Bar Association said the proposals were "not without risk" and just because a case was uncontested it did not mean it was uncontentious. The CBA also warned that a lay prosecutor was no match for a trained barrister representing a defendant.

The Law Society compared lay prosecutors to the old police sergeants who used to prosecute cases in magistrates' courts before the birth of the CPS. The society's president, Robert Sayer, said: "Lay prosecutors must be supervised by a crown solicitor or barrister and they must be subject to the same professional code as CPS lawyers. The Law Society will be monitoring the rollout of this project to ensure the high standards of the pilot are maintained throughout the country."

Yesterday's report by the CPS Inspectorate hailed the pilot project as a success. It found that 81 per cent of prosecutions handled by its new "lay presenters" ended with the case being concluded on the first occasion. The inspectorate said the scheme could prove cost-effective to the CPS if courts listed fast-track cases with other cases a lay presenter could handle.

The inspectorate added: "This frees crown prosecutors to devote more of their time to more difficult magistrates courts cases and the higher profile cases dealt with at the Crown Court." The inspectorate said the presentation skills of its lay prosecutorscompared favourably with those of crown prosecutors and defence solicitors.

But Mr Wadham said Liberty wanted to know, before the scheme was extended to the rest of the country, how many cases involved situations where the defendant was not represented by a lawyer. A CPS spokesman said a legally qualified crown prosecutor would be available to assist the lay prosecutor should a non-contested case require input from a legally qualified person.

The pilot included courts in Croydon, Burnley, Northampton, North Staffordshire, North Wales and Tyneside.