CPS attacked for failure to charge police

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THE CROWN Prosecution Service and its former director, Dame Barbara Mills, came in for criticism yesterday over their handling of cases involving deaths in police custody.

In a damning analysis, Judge Gerald Butler said the system was "inefficient and fundamentally unsound". Lack of clarity and direction over who was responsible for deciding whether to prosecute police officers had led to a "thoroughly unsatisfactory situation", which needed to be urgently rectified.

The inquiry found an extraordinary level of confusion within the CPS. Analysing two deaths in police cells, the judge found that everyone in the service, except Dame Barbara, thought she was responsible for the decision not to bring charges against officers. The judge decided that Dame Barbara was indeed ultimately responsible. But the only person to have read all the relevant documents was a relatively junior lawyer who went on to make mistakes over the course of action to take.

The judge recommended that all death-in-custody cases should be referred to central casework, the CPS department that specialises in difficult cases, and staff there should have compulsory, rigorous training. Decisions on such controversial cases should be based on a chain of command with a clearly identified person at a senior level in charge. Any decision not to prosecute should be sent for a second opinion.

Judge Butler expressed "unease" at the present sys-tem. Deaths in custody are reported to the CPS and any inquiry is done by the police.

The CPS should also give "serious consideration" to publishing its reasons for deciding not to prosecute police officers in cases involving deaths in custody, especially where an inquest jury had returned a verdict of unlawful killing. The judge said he found no evidence that the CPS was showing undue favouritism to police officers.

The inquiry was set up after the outcry over the CPS decision not to prosecute any police in the case of Richard O'Brien, who died after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly in 1994. He was a market trader, of East Dulwich, south London, aged 37, with seven children. Despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, the CPS twice declined to take action against three Metropolitan Police officers. Charges were eventually brought after Mr O'Brien's family took the case to judicial review. The officers were acquitted at the Old Bailey last week.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, said he was accepting all the recommendations of the report and had already instituted changes. Dame Barbara was yesterday unable to comment.