Crown Prosecution Service in London is 'near meltdown'

Criminals are given 'get out of jail free' cards, leaked private memo claims

Parts of the Crown Prosecution Service in London are in "meltdown" with criminals being handed "get out of jail free cards" while "open and shut" cases are being thrown out of court, a memo seen by The Independent claims.

Next month the prosecution service watchdog is expected to criticise the overall performance of the CPS in the capital after initial findings have found "disturbing" problems in the prosecution of criminals.

A confidential email written by a senior crown prosecutor to a borough crown prosecutor in south-east London warns: "I'm sorry to have to be blunt, but the unit is meltdown ... We are now in the ludicrous position of having open-and-shut cases dismissed; eg where the defendant was seen on CCTV to be placing tracksuits into a foil box!"

Writing in July last year, shortly after the appointment of Keir Starmer QC as the Director of Public Prosecutions, the exasperated barrister complains: "What's more we are at the total mercy of the local defence firms with regard to effective trials ... Cases were five deep across the whole desk; they've now been 'relocated' to the cupboard. Out of sight is out of mind I guess."

He speaks of one case in jeopardy involving a "well-known serial wife beater". "And to top it all off, I've just had a ridiculous email from the DPP about 'Capturing the essence of the new organisation' ... I can see stable yard ... and the essence of this particular part of the organisation is currently being forked out of the horse boxes."

The CPS lawyer also warns about the cost of stress on the staff who end up taking sick leave to cope with the pressures.

He laments: "I didn't come to the Bar to become the personal whipping boy of the criminal justice system. Neither did any of my colleagues. I was promised that the CPS would offer chances to excel, to gain fantastic experience as an advocate, and to be part of the new-look service. All it's provided so far is a chance to be bollocked, day in, day out, by the lay benches, district judges, the police, witness service and the occasional victim."

The disclosure will help to confirm fears that hundreds of criminals across London are escaping justice because of failings by prosecutors to prepare cases for court.

Stephen Wooler, Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, told The Independent yesterday that there were serious concerns about the preparation of court files which had a knock-on effect to the conviction rates in the capital. He said that, in the first tranche of nine London reports published last month, not one of the London boroughs achieved a rating of "good", and five, including the one where the disgruntled barrister was working, managed no more than "poor".

Mr Wooler said that while initial charging decisions were "sound" this deteriorated further into the case-handling process.

"This attracts criticism from magistrates and judges when the cases get to court. This seems partly due to resources and deployment but also to the number of London-wide and national initiatives," said Mr Wooler.

Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said last night: "I hear all the same frustrations from police officers around the country who think the failings in the criminal justice system mean that criminals are just getting away with it, and that time and again they are re-arresting people for the same offences when they should already have been to court and be facing a prison sentence."

Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor of CPS London said: "We have been urgently working to improve our case preparation by moving more staff to deal directly with cases, recruiting more lawyers and training more paralegal support officers. By improving our case preparation and progression in this way I am confident we will see more successful prosecutions.

"The new London senior management team are determined to improve the service we provide to victims and witnesses in London. The nine reports published to date confirm our own findings and it is helpful to know we are addressing the right things."

Prosecution by numbers

1 Million

The number of cases that the CPS handles each year.

72.7%

Conviction rate in London, compared to a national rate of 80.6%

8.5 days

Average working days lost to sickness among CPS staff in the year to March 2009.

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