Straw attacks judicial `crisis of confidence'

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Indy Politics

Crime Correspondent

An overhaul of the Crown Prosecution Service was proposed by Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, yesterday to help tackle what he described as a "crisis of confidence" in the criminal justice system.

Mr Straw called for an urgent review of the service and said there was an "alarming" rise in the number of cases that were abandoned before they reached court.

He said the impression currently being given to the public and police was "that it was all too easy for criminals to get away with it".

Addressing the Police Federation's annual conference in Bournemouth, Mr Straw outlined a series of proposals for reforming the CPS, the body responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in England and Wales.

These included a separate prosecution service for each police force, with its own Chief Crown Prosecutor, and changes to the "public interest" justification for dropping cases.

He criticised the number of cases that had been discontinued, which he said had risen from 109,000 in 1978-88 - 7.8 per cent of the finalised cases - to 161,500 in 1994, which represents 11.5 per cent of the cases. He also highlighted the growing number of people pleading not guilty at Crown Court who were being acquitted.

He said: "The Crown Prosecution Service as currently structured is not working as effectively as it should. The lack of public confidence underlines this."

The introduction of a prosecution service for each of the England and Wales's 43 police forces would bring greater accountability and encourage "competing best practice", he argued. This would replace the existing system of 13 CPS regions.

Another suggestion was to shift responsibility for informing victims that cases were to be discontinued or charges downgraded from the police to the CPS.

"Why should police officers who do not make the decisions be forced to act as postman for the CPS?" he asked.

The power to drop a case on the grounds that it was not in the public interest should be replaced by the power to discontinue only on specified grounds, such as triviality or the age or infirmity of the defendant, he maintained.

In addition, he called for research into how juries arrive at their decisions and offered support for measures to reduce delays at courts.

Mr Straw said that while crime had more than doubled over the last 15 years, convictions and cautions had fallen by 7 per cent. "It is scarcely surprising that both the police and the public draw one simple conclusion from these figures - that it is all too easy for criminals to get away with it."