The news that Alison Saunders is to stand down as the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), at the end of her five-year contract, might bring an end to the grotesque ‘target driven justice’, which is synonymous with her time at the top. By common consent, Ms Saunders has not exactly covered herself – or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) she leads – with glory. Too many things have gone disastrously wrong, too many times, and public confidence in our justice system is now at an all time low. Such is the damage, it will take much more than Ms Saunders’ departure to repair what has been broken.
|DPP Alison Saunders|
The new ‘approach’ to delivering so-called justice was instituted by her predecessor as DPP, Keir Starmer (now Sir Keir Starmer MP, a Labour front bencher), who was appointed in 2008. He oversaw the transformation of the CPS from a taxpayer-funded body, tasked with making decisions about prosecutions based on evidence, to an increasingly politicised machine which sought to champion trendy causes which very vocal campaigners believed should be driving our justice system. Thus began an unhealthy obsession with DPP sound-bites, ‘initiatives’ and grandstanding for the media. Keir Starmer compromised the integrity of the CPS and Alison Saunders proceeded to exacerbate matters.
|Sir Keir Starmer QC MP|
Once this ideological dogma had taken root within the CPS - the 2014 report by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary said: “The presumption that a victim should always be believed should be institutionalised”, - traditional approaches, such as defendants being innocent until proven guilty, the police at least making an effort to pursue open minded investigations, were promptly ditched. When Ms Saunders took up her role as DPP in 2013, she was an enthusiastic adopter and advocate and a bad situation became inevitably worse.
Back in 2014, Ms Saunders, who had spent her entire professional life working at the CPS, told one interviewer that “Nobody knew who we [the CPS] were, what we did – so I think it’s good that we have a profile.” Unfortunately, years of back office work in the CPS bureaucracy had ill prepared her for the DPP role and many of her key interviews became highly defensive, as public criticism of controversial CPS failures mounted.
One of the most serious areas of concern during Ms Saunders tenure has been ‘target-driven’ practices, where CPS staff members are under constant pressure to achieve ‘results’ – that is, convictions in court. Common sense dictates that any legal system which operates on the basis of hitting specific, pre-set targets for the number of convictions in court, is at risk of multiplying miscarriages of justice, as well as encouraging prosecutors to charge potential defendants in cases where there is little or no actual evidence. This seems to have become the norm in sexual allegation cases, both modern and historical. No one can regard this as a proper, fair, sensible approach to administering justice in a country which gave the world the Magna Carta.
Another key concern was the apparent collusion between some CPS staff and police investigators over the vexed issue of disclosure of evidence – again, especially in sexual offence cases – to the defence. As evidence mounted that critical material, such as text messages and social media exchanges, were not being disclosed to defendants’ legal teams, trials started to collapse. It is of no surprise that judges have become much more critical of police and CPS failures and omissions.
In recent months, Ms Saunders has not helped her cause by publicly declaring that she does not believe that there are any innocent people in prison as a consequence of failures to disclose relevant evidence to the defence. What a preposterous, immature, arrogant stance to take. Just last week, a devastating report by the HMCPS Inspectorate revealed that there had been a ‘steady stream of miscarriages of justice’ due to poor disclosure practices. Who knows how many innocent, but wrongly convicted, men and women are currently rotting in our dangerous, over crowded, dysfunctional prisons? Does the evidence point to Ms. Saunders being naive or supremely deluded?
While Ms Saunders’ personally very lucrative departure from her post is to be welcomed by all concerned about the route our justice m.o. has taken over the last decade, it will not be enough to restore faith in a system which was once the envy of the world. Fundamental reform will surely require the ditching by prosecutors of the current wholly inappropriate target-driven approach, as well as a move away from ideological fashions and fads, which have done so much damage.
Is it too much to hope that the new DPP makes every effort to restore some faith in our justice system’s ability to protect the innocent and, by searching for and uncovering the truth, safely to convict the guilty? Time will tell.