CPS barristers 'lack presence, self-confidence and flair'

Chief Inspector’s review highlights significant budget cuts in service since 2010

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The Independent Online

A report by inspectors has warned that too many Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) barristers lack “presence, self-confidence and flair” in Crown Court trials.

The CPS Inspectorate found that barristers working for the service in England and Wales were often in danger of “losing” the jury because of the way they presented cases.

The report found that some advocates “encountered difficulties in relation to law and procedure, which appeared to derive from a lack of confidence; advocates knew what they wanted to achieve, but were not clear how to achieve it”. They had difficulty with opening and closing speeches, cross-examination and examination-in-chief.

The report noted instances of CPS barristers letting the witnesses “run away” with their version of events and warned that cross examinations could be particularly unstructured.

The assessors saw examples of an advocate failing to put the prosecution’s case, allowing the defendant too much leeway to reiterate the defence case, and being unaware of how to introduce a “no comment interview” in evidence.

Standards of CPS barristers had taken a “step backwards” over the past three years, the report concluded.

Comparing the results to earlier evaluations in 2009 and 2012, it said: “Many lessons had not been learnt. The gap in ability between crown advocates and counsel from the Bar had widened since the first review and the difference in quality between the two was noticeable in a greater number of cases than in 2009.”

Of the 486 assessments undertaken by the CPS nationally of Crown Advocates during 2010-11, 13 advocates (2.7 per cent) required improvement. Of the 185 assessments undertaken during 2013-14, 12 advocates (6.5 per cent) required improvement and one of these was graded as poor.

This indicates some deterioration in quality, the report concluded.

The Chief Inspector Michael Fuller said the review took place against “a significant background of change” for the CPS with budget cuts and a reduction in the number of CPS advocates.

The Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010 had required the CPS to reduce spending by 25 per cent by the end of 2014-15.

This has resulted in a reduction in the workforce and office closures, all of which impact on the ability to deliver advocacy services which were “truly value for money”, the report concluded.

But Mr Fuller, a former Chief Constable of Kent who was the UK’s first ethnic minority officer to obtain that rank, also warned that a reliance on outside barristers to present cases posed a “real threat to in-house prosecutors’ courtroom skills”.

The CPS argued that conviction rates had been maintained. A spokesman said the report was based on the CPS’s own monitoring of the weakest barristers and did not reflect the true picture.

“We dispute criticism of the quality of CPS advocates and are disappointed that this finding has been made when the Inspectorate undertook no observations of advocates in action,” he said.

“The report’s findings are based on our own assessment of advocates, which is specifically targeted at those that we believe need it most.

“It is, therefore, an inaccurate picture of the overall quality of our advocates.”