Big boost for police in CPS shake-up

Reforms to quell criticism from victims of crime
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Ministers are planning a shake-up of the Crown Prosecution Service in response to mounting police frustration and criticism from the victims of crime over the number of prosecutions dropped before they come to court.

The plans will be seen as a further sign of the Government's determination to secure its law and order platform in the run-up to the general election and are likely to meet with the strong approval of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

In a significant change of policy, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, has undertaken an internal review of the CPS's functions and is shortly to put proposals to ministers designed to improve public confidence in the effectiveness of the agency.

The reforms also follow consistent pressure from Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, for a full-scale review of the CPS to deal with what Mr Straw claimed, in a speech in May to the Police Federation, was a "crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system".

Among the proposals that ministers will consider are basing some CPS lawyers in large police stations, a relaxation on some occasions of the "more than 50 per cent chance of conviction" rule that the prosecutors use in deciding whether to pursue cases, and giving the police a mechanism by which they can challenge CPS decisions not to prosecute.

Although the Association of Chief Police Officers has continued to stress its close working relationship with the CPS there have been widespread unofficial complaints from senior and middle-ranking police officers over the "discontinuance" of prosecutions. There has also been widespread concern by police officers over what they see as a CPS tendency to "play safe" by commuting original police charges to lesser ones.

Some police officers say the CPS is too ready - sometimes in exchange for a guilty plea - to change a wounding charge to the lesser one of actual bodily harm and actual bodily harm charges to those of common assault. Women's groups also argue that the number of rape cases going to courts fell from half to a fifth between the early 1980s and 1993.

The Attorney General disclosed in the Commons yesterday that he was considering "very seriously indeed" plans to install Crown Prosecution lawyers in police stations to improve liaison between officers and the prosecuting authorities.

Sir Nicholas said pilot schemes were being planned to enable prosecutors to "work closely with the police in preparation of cases". He added: "Close working relations between police and the Crown Prosecution Service are of the essence of fair and efficient prosecution of cases."

But this is only part of a much wider-ranging reform package which will include a greater flexibility in applying the rigid test by which the CPS has to be satisfied that a properly directed court is "more likely than not" to convict before its proceeds.

At the same time, he is drawing up proposals to allow a "second look" mechanism - which could mean a police right of appeal - after the CPS has decided to drop a particular prosecution because it judges that it does not have a sufficient chance of success in court.

In his May speech to the Police Federation, Mr Straw proposed changes to the CPS to take account of the fact that by 1993 the number of recorded offences had more than doubled to 5.5 million, while the number of people cautioned or convicted fell from 556,000 in 1980 to 517,000. Mr Straw said last night: "This is a major change of heart by the Government in response to public criticism and to Labour's proposal. "

n Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, is to hold talks with John Major to discuss mounting opposition by judges to the proposals for mandatory sentences on repeat offenders by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. They are also likely to discuss judges' pay.

Prosecutors' 'bias', page 2