The CPS has come a long way since 1986, and our commitment to delivering justice is stronger than ever.
The average house price was £36,000 when I joined the Crown Prosecution Service. The year? 1986 – and in October the Crown Prosecution Service became fully operational across England and Wales. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, the organisation is reflecting on the changes it has seen and the impact it has made.
The notion of a new, independent prosecution authority followed the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. Before that, the police had the last word over which cases went to trial.
The CPS is now a more sophisticated and modern organisation. We value and safeguard our independence as much as we did in 1986, but work much more closely with the police and give more thought to the needs and views of victims. We are at the front end of the prosecution process, deciding charges in a wide range of offences, often after having worked with colleagues during the investigation. But, crucially, basing every decision on the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Put simply, is there enough evidence and is it in the public interest to bring the case to court?
Our principles have remained the same, even though our work has changed. It is vital that the prosecutor keeps pace with changes in social norms as well as legislative changes.
For example, earlier this month the CPS published new guidance for prosecutors on the range of offences for which social media users could face prosecution. Online crime was unimaginable 30 years ago – but if someone is being grossly abusive, or bullying or harassing people online, then we will prosecute in the same way we would if it were face-to-face.
Another topical issue is hate crime. The increase in reported cases shows we all need to do even more to tackle this unacceptable and distressing behaviour. Our latest report showed that in 2015/16, more hate crime prosecutions were completed than ever before. More of these incidents are being recognised as hate crimes, so they are reported, investigated and prosecuted as such. It is important that this continues.
We have just launched a 13-week public consultation on our policy for dealing with offences against disabled people; and racial, religious, homophobic and transphobic hate crime. As social attitudes to different communities have evolved, our prosecutors need to reflect that.
The CPS is also a far more transparent organisation than in 1986. It is important the public has confidence in us – and a major part of that is explaining how we have made our decisions and how we support justice. We are also taking on more advocacy – so people see us on our feet in the courts.
One change to lead the way for the next 30 years is the rollout of a single, shared, digital case management system – the CJS Common Platform. It will bring together all information about a case, so case preparation can be completed by all agencies.
Ultimately, the defence, victims and witnesses will be able to access the information they need, when they need it. It will further reduce our reliance on paper forms, and give victims and witnesses easier access to electronic and multimedia evidence such as CCTV footage.
Developments such as Better Case Management and Transforming Summary Justice are helping to streamline the courts. It is important that all of us, including the defence, engage early with these initiatives to realise their full benefits. Better and earlier engagement with the defence to identify specific case issues avoids unnecessary and wasted hearings. Undertaken effectively it significantly reduces workload, improves performance and provides a better service to victims and witnesses.
But it is not just technology that has been transformed; our workload has as well. In 1986 there were just 11,000 cases submitted to us. Today, we prosecute more than 600,000 each year with a conviction rate of over 80%. That does not mean we fail in the others. If our conviction rate was 100% it would mean that we were being too cautious in our approach and possibly mean that we were not putting before the court cases which deserve to be heard. I value our caseworking skills and I am pleased they are of such high quality.
Alison Saunders is director of public prosecutions