Law: Change is a matter of trial and error: Sean Webster reports on the reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service, and asks if low morale among its staff will hinder the creation of a more efficient and streamlined organisation

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The Independent Online
STAFF working for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) say that morale has fallen to an all- time low. Major restructuring over the past year by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills QC, has left CPS lawyers and administrators concerned about their future with the service. Staff say the restructuring will dramatically reduce opportunities for career development and will undermine job security.

In September, Mrs Mills announced a radical reorganisation of staff, amalgamating the existing 31 CPS areas into 13 larger groupings, the aim being to create more direct lines of communication and a more consistent approach to work throughout England and Wales. The second stage of this reorganisation will begin next month when CPS teams will be increased in some areas from two or three lawyers to between four and six.

As a result, around a third of the existing 560 Principal Crown prosecutors (PCPs) will lose their responsibility for leading and managing teams. The process will start with a pilot scheme in each of the 13 areas and the results will be reviewed in April.

Rodney Chapman, a senior Crown prosecutor at the Nottingham CPS office, and convener of the CPS lawyers' union, the First Division Association (FDA), says that those PCPs who have lost their team leader status feel 'very disillusioned'.

In addition, he says, lawyers below this level see the non-team leader PCPs as the natural choice for promotion to team leader and therefore blocking their promotion for several years.

Jack Newby, secretary of the joint negotiating body for the CPS trade unions, believes that career opportunities in the CPS have been badly damaged, making staff angry and bitter. 'People who worked very hard in the early days of service now feel they are being betrayed,' he says.

Many law graduates and young lawyers joined the CPS in 1990 when a new grading structure was introduced in a bid to compete with the private sector for the best recruits. It was believed that although the CPS did not offer top salaries, it could provide a secure job and good career opportunities.

Mr Newby believes that since then Mrs Mills has taken advantage of the recession in introducing her reforms. 'Market forces are on her side. Staff perceive that there are at present few legal jobs available outside the CPS,' he says, and warns that staff will leave 'in droves' if the economy improves because of the treatment they have received.

Lawyers with the most marketable skills - such as fraud specialists working for the London- based CPS fraud investigation group - are already leaving the service for better-paid jobs with City law firms.

A spokesman for the CPS denied that low morale was widespread: 'We are not aware that there is a big problem in the service,' he says. 'However, the service and the director realise that change is never easy and can be unsettling for staff.'

The FDA told the CPS management last month that unless it gets certain assurances safeguarding the existing number of PCP posts the association will ballot its members on limited industrial action, involving non-cooperation with the reorganisation process.

Some CPS staff say that the new geographical areas bear little relation to the regional structures of the police and the courts. According to one CPS lawyer: 'One of the main publicly expressed objectives of the CPS was to work with the other agencies within the criminal justice system, but the new area structure seems almost purpose-built to hinder rather than help the CPS achieve that objective.'

Morale within the CPS has also been damaged by new regulations introduced to increase the consistency of approach between dffferent police authorities. CPS staff say the aim is admirable but that it has resulted in a large increase in paperwork both for them and the police and has led to the duplication of work.

The prosecutor's freedom to exercise legal discretion is being replaced by an increased emphasis on form filling, Mr Chapman says. As a result, many prosecutors are continuing to prosecute weak cases, which in the past would have been weeded out, rather than face the bureaucracy now involved in discontinuing a prosecution.

'I feel people are reluctant to take hard decisions and discontinue cases because they must fill in half a dozen forms do this,' Mr Chapman says.

It is unclear whether the reorganisation currently under way at the CPS will produce a better, more efficient service - or whether the low morale of staff will produce the opposite effect.

Sean Webster writes for Solicitors Journal