The Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, said he would be issuing new guidelines for crown prosecutors and that he was prepared to consider lowering the current threshold of evidence needed to bring a prosecution.
Such a move would be hugely controversial. The human rights group Liberty warned that any lowering of the standard for bringing prosecutions could create injustice. John Wadham, its director, said: "We would be very concerned about the lowering of the standard. It's bound to mean that more people are arrested, detained, prosecuted and held in custody. A significant number of these people will be innocent."
The Law Society was also cautious. It welcomed the debate but insisted that certain safeguards would have to be in place. Robert Sayer, its president, said: "There must be a proper system for testing the evidence and adequate professional advice."
The DPP is concerned that the CPS may be dominated by the prevailing ethos of the legal profession and is anxious that the "public should own the system". He will launch a massive consultation exercise next year to gauge public opinion on prosecution policy.
Mr Calvert-Smith said he would be willing to consider arguments in favour of reverting to the old prima facie standard of evidence, where prosecutions were brought whenever there was an elementary case to answer. Prosecutions are currently only brought where there is a "realistic prospect" of conviction.
Mr Calvert-Smith admitted that a prima facie system would "cost millions" to administer and that it had been criticised in the past because of high rates of acquittal. He said: "The old-fashioned view was that if there was a prima facie case, the prosecution should not act as judge and jury." He said that the view was that only the judge and jury should have that role. If prima facie was reintroduced, the DPP admitted, "a lot of innocent people" being brought before the courts, which he said was "a bit unfair".
But he said: "With the realistic prospect test, a lot of people who might have been guilty are never actually prosecuted."
Mr Calvert-Smith said the fact that the current prosecution standard resulted in a 60 per cent conviction rate for not-guilty pleas was "an indication that we are doing it about right". He said that he would make the final decision on whether any change to the prosecution standard was necessary but said: "In the end it is my code but I would rather take in as many informed views as I can."
The DPP has been deeply impressed with the way Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's inquiry into the murder ofStephen Lawrence opened up the public debate on the workings of the law. He is anxious that the CPS is similarly subject to such public discussion.
The new guidelines for Crown Prosecutors will be the first since 1994, when Mr Calvert-Smith's predecessor, Dame Barbara Mills, published a document based on the views of the legal profession.
This will be the first time this area has been the subject of a public consultation exercise and Mr Calvert-Smith said he hoped the new code for prosecutors would be made available in schools, to encourage a greater understanding of the work of the CPS.
The DPP said he had received large amounts of correspondence from the public, asking why prosecutions, particularly in rape and sex abuse cases, had been dropped. People could not understand why the CPS had decided it was "not in the public interest" to proceed in cases of petty theft.
Mr Calvert-Smith said that although judges and lawyers were often accused of living in "ivory towers," the public needed to make a greater effort to understand the way the law worked. He said: "We all watch LA Law and love Kavanagh QC but it's unlikely that people have any more than the dimmest view of how [the criminal justice system] works."
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