To this, as we are on the business this week of the rights and wrongs of nationalization, one might readily add The Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 which effectively nationalized the business of prosecuting criminal offences in England and Wales. Hitherto some counties had their own prosecutions department (the County Prosecuting Solicitor), some police forces continued to prosecute offences using police officers as prosecutors and others (such as Bedfordshire) used independent solicitors to prepare and conduct their prosecutions, instructing independent counsel where necessary.
All that came to an end with the 1985 act. Looking back it is difficult to see why it was deemed necessary to nationalize the business of prosecutions. After all the Conservative government of the day was one passionately opposed to such things and might have been expected to understand what the eventual results of this folly would be. Be that as it may, the deed was done and the Crown Prosecution Service was born.
Looking back I would have no hesitation in saying that the Bedfordshire system was by far the best. Bedford Crown Court was always a pleasure to go to because the local solicitors to whom work was sent always used the best people they could get (for obvious reason) for prosecutions and the standards of advocacy were generally pretty good. One was always very well looked after too, as those who solicitors who did prosecution work always had excellent clerks (often retired police officers who knew their way round the system) to instruct you at court.
County Prosecuting Solicitors varied. Some were very good, some were reasonable and some were awful, as you might expect. But the worst of the lot were the police officers who prosecuted. I can recall many occasions going to some benighted spot and finding the court being presided over by a Police Sergeant who used every dirty trick in the book to get convictions. None of them had a legal qualification in their body but had learnt the business of prosecutions by the simple means of going to court and watching it done, whether as a witness themselves or as an exercise in itself.
The Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 was meant to put an end to all that. But nationalized industries being what they always are, the wheel has now come full circle and very soon some four hundred inadequately qualified people will be let loose to prosecute offences in our courts.
These are so-called paralegal ‘designated case workers’ who will later this year be allowed to prosecute people at trial as well as upon pleas of guilty, for offences such as theft, assault, applications for bail and antisocial behaviour orders. At least that is what is envisaged now, though I daresay that soon enough these poor mites will find themselves conducting much more serious cases.
But why end there? Why not just let any old Tom, Dick or Harry in off the street to do a spot of prosecuting? The chances are that, with a little training as the DCWs appear to have, they might do just as good a job.
This is an appalling and retrograde development for English justice. These people are no doubt well-meaning but they have neither the training nor the obligation to observe ethical standards that is laid upon a solicitor or a barrister, nor have they the training, it would seem. At a time when we seek to ensure, if at all possible, the conviction and sentencing of the guilty and the just acquittal of the innocent, the government lets loose a bunch of amateurs to ensure the protection of the public. And these are the people who are at the very bottom of the CPS tub, an organisation not over-staffed with great lawyers as it is.