Case for legal efficiency looks certain to alarm: The Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills QC, tells Adam Sage of the proposals for radical change that she will make to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice next week

UNLIKE most lawyers, Barbara Mills QC does not have a habit of making the humdrum sound like an eternal truth. Indeed, with her, it is rather the opposite. When Mrs Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, proposes radical changes to the criminal justice system, it is with the simplicity of someone ordering office stationery.

Yes, she said, defendants ought to disclose their case before their trial, and yes, failure to do so should be backed by sanctions. The right to silence? It could be weakened in some circumstances.

From her businesslike manner, a listener might assume that she was repeating commonly-held and uncontroversial views. That is not the case. Her opinions, which she will expound to a meeting of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice next week, will meet opposition. The notion that the defence should be told the prosecution case without having to reveal its own is deeply embedded in legal circles. But Mrs Mills said this not only tilts the balance unfairly in favour of the accused, it is also inefficient.

If prosecutors knew - at least in outline - what their opponents were going to say, trials would be shorter and costs lower. 'I see this as not just helping the prosecution, because that's not the point, it's using the resources of the criminal justice system as best you can.'

Her comments will alarm many defence lawyers, who will argue that you cannot put a price on justice. But they seem to have found a sympathetic ear at the Royal Commission, which Mrs Mills said is considering the issue.

This concern with efficiency and value for money appears high on her agenda. In an interview with the Independent, a constant theme was the need for the system to work faster and more smoothly. Minor offences, such as failing to get a vehicle licence, should be decriminalised, she said. They clog up the courts and would be handled better by the other authorities.

But what if a motorist wants to argue that he or she is being wrongly penalised? 'I think you've got to have some sort of safety valve so that if you want a hearing you can have it,' Mrs Mills said. Yet she believes most people would 'probably groan but pay up'.

If this idea is likely to arouse interest and opposition, so too will Caution Plus, another proposal Mrs Mills seems to have taken to heart. 'This is an extremely interesting concept, yet, I have to say, to be properly developed.'

Under this system, offenders could be penalised at the same time as they were cautioned, avoiding a criminal record but perhaps picking up a fine. Thus, her predecessor, Sir Allan Green QC, who was cautioned after a kerb-crawling incident, might also have been asked to pay a financial penalty, or undertake a few hours of community work.

This, needless to say, is not an example chosen by Mrs Mills to explain the scheme. She prefers the case of a shoplifter asked to pay a penalty to the store he or she has stolen from. The system would be designed to remove minor cases from the criminal justice system, an aim widely recognised as laudable.

But there are problems. Who decides on the penalty element? The police? The Crown Prosecution Service? Mrs Mills admitted that she does not know, but said it is an area being looked at by the Royal Commission. Her own organisation has often been criticised for failing to meet the high standards of efficiency she demands from other parts of the justice system. But that has changed, she said. The CPS is 'running very well', helped by improving relations with the police.

However, her life has not been made easier by a judgment from Lord Lane, the former Lord Chief Justice, that the prosecution must disclose disciplinary findings against police officers.

Mrs Mills said she hopes to have arrangements for meeting the ruling in place shortly. But negotiations with the police have been difficult, particularly over the disclosure of complaints that have not been resolved. Officers fear that criminals will make spurious allegations against them to undermine their credibility before juries. Yet she insists such complaints will have to be revealed, even if only in summary form.

(Photograph omitted)

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