Death in custody defeat for Mills

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The Independent Online
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Dame Barbara Mills, has lost her independence in the making of highly controversial decisions over prosecutions for deaths in police or prison custody.

In future, no prosecuting decisions in these cases will be taken without independent advice from Treasury Counsel, and if the DPP disagrees with that advice the Attorney General, John Morris, and the Solicitor General, Charles Falconer, will be consulted.

The move strips the DPP of her hitherto unrestricted power to reach decisions in death-in-custody cases without being obliged to go outside the Crown Prosecution Service for a second opinion.

It follows a meeting called by Mr Morris yesterday in which the law officers suggested to Dame Barbara that additional safeguards were needed immediately, even though the inquiry announced last Friday has yet to report. Dame Barbara is understood to have readily agreed.

The new safeguards mean that some decisions about death-in-custody prosecutions will reach ministerial level. The CPS, which is under the superintendence of the Attorney General, said yesterday that they will stay, in effect, at least until the conclusion of the inquiry, which is to be headed by His Honour Gerald Butler QC. Until his retirement in May, Judge Butler was the senior criminal judge at Southwark Crown Court, in south London.

The safeguards are the latest concessions after Dame Barbara's dramatic climbdowns in High Court judicial reviews last week, when she agreed to reconsider decisions not to prosecute police officers involved in the deaths of Shiji Lapite and Richard O'Brien.

Dame Barbara has resisted calls for her resignation. But Raju Bhatt, solicitor for Mr Lapite's family, said: "This amounts to a recognition by the Attorney General that he cannot have any confidence in the DPP or the decision-making processes in the service she supervises."

Judge Butler will inquire into the CPS's consideration of the Lapite and O'Brien cases, the circumstances in which material in the two cases was presented to the High Court, and whether changes are needed in the approach taken to deaths in custody.

Mr Bhatt urged Mr Morris to go further and initiate an examination of the entire police complaints process. "The Attorney General must also look at the quality of the information that the CPS decision-makers receive from the police", he said. He added that the terms of reference of the Butler inquiry were arbitrary because they excluded other complaints against the police which while not resulting in death were still serious.

Deborah Coles, co-director of the pressure group Inquest, which monitors deaths in custody, gave a qualified welcome to the decision to include prison deaths in the judge's inquiry but added: "This still doesn't address the fundamental concern that the whole complaints system needs investigation, not just the CPS which is the culmination of the process. We would still urge the Home Secretary to launch an inquiry into all the aspects - and one that will take evidence from all interested parties."

Andreas Whittam Smith, page 13