Keep your nose clean

John Upton

  • Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead, CM 5704
    Stationery Office, 139 pp, £15.70, February 2001

The Labour Government is about to embark in its second term on a radical and repressive programme of legal reform. If the proposals contained in the White Paper Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead are implemented, the Government will have succeeded in dismantling some of the fundamental safeguards which exist to protect defendants in the criminal justice system. Labour’s view seems to be that civil liberties for those accused of crime are unimportant – if you keep your nose clean you don’t need to worry. This is a posture first struck by the Home Secretaries of the Thatcher years. Anyone who thinks that they voted for a party that cares about civil rights is in for a shock.

A large number of proposals in the White Paper are only sketched out. The Government is awaiting the publication of a report by Sir Robin Auld, showing the results of his comprehensive review of the criminal courts, before flesh is put on the bones of the recommendations. As so often with New Labour, presentation seems to be thought as important as content. The White Paper is full of impressive diagrams, charts and text boxes and is marbled with jargon such as ‘justice gap’, ‘joined-up government’ and an exhortation to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ‘refocus on their core business’. There’s even a nod in the direction of the New Age in the perception of a need for ‘holistic solutions’ to achieve ‘a society at one with itself’. Throughout the document, there are abbreviations, acronyms and catchphrases; it reads like a management consultancy project summary.

It is in Part 3 of the White Paper, entitled ‘Modernising the Criminal Justice System’, that the Government’s intentions are most clearly set out. Part 3 begins with an appraisal of the Crown Prosecution Service, the body that brings prosecutions on behalf of the state, which has recently also been the subject of a review by Sir Iain Glidewell. Before the mid-1980s, criminal investigation was the domain solely of the police service, whose actions were not subject to any external review. It is now accepted that the ‘core business’ of significant elements of the police throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was the obtaining of wrongful convictions through the planting or suppression of evidence and the abuse of suspects. Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, the 1985 Prosecution of Offenders Act established the CPS in order to separate responsibilities for the investigation and prosecution of crimes.

The Way Ahead seeks to abolish a ‘justice gap’, as it is described, between the CPS and enforcement officers – although this gap is one that should at all costs be preserved. This separation of powers enables CPS lawyers to evaluate the viability of a proposed prosecution objectively, without fear of undue pressure from the police. The Glidewell Review recommended that the police and CPS develop joint units, to be known as Criminal Justice Units, to ‘maximise efficiency and effectiveness’. The White Paper approves of this arrangement, which has already been implemented in some parts of the country, and lists the advantages it will bring. They include: ‘Less time spent transporting files between offices’ and ‘cost savings – reducing duplication and overheads’. ‘In some areas,’ according to the White Paper, ‘this means CPS and police sharing office accommodation for the first time.’ The CPS is also to explore with the police ways to ‘develop a nationally consistent approach to the provision of earlier and better pre-charge assistance to the police (including out of hours)’. It’s difficult to see how proposals such as these do not effectively reunite investigatory and prosecutorial functions. This, we’re told, will help to ‘increase the number of prosecutions and reduce the number of cases that fail’. The Guildford Four, Judith Ward and the numerous other recipients of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad-style justice are among those who benefited from the attentions of an all-powerful police force able to bring prosecutions without hindrance from a truly independent agency empowered to check on the legality of their case. In the light of these new proposals we can surely look forward to other such cases.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in