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DPP Keir Starmer tells prosecutors to do extra training

CPS barristers ‘damage confidence’ over decisions on accepting guilty pleas

By Susan Cooke | 18 June 2012

“It is axiomatic that when a plea is accepted to a less serious offence than is demonstrated by the evidence… a great deal of damage is done to public confidence” – Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions

UK prosecutors are being told to undergo extra training on when they can accept guilty pleas from criminal defendants.

Exaro has obtained a copy of a letter written by Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions (DPP), saying that barristers should “take, and pass, a rigorous e-learning course on the acceptance of pleas.”

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is headed by the DPP, is worried about cases in which guilty pleas have been accepted for lesser charges than the evidence supports.

Starmer writes that prosecutors have damaged confidence in the judicial system by accepting pleas wrongly. Dominic Grieve, attorney general, and Lord Justice Thomas, president of the Queen’s Bench division share the concern, he says.

The letter is being e-mailed this month to all members of the CPS advocate panel, which is made up of about 2,700 self-employed barristers, including QCs.

Starmer writes: “In recent months, victims and their families, the Court of Appeal and the attorney general have brought to my attention cases where the pleas, or bases of pleas, have been accepted inappropriately.”

“I have assured the president of the Queen’s Bench and the attorney general that I will do all that I can to ensure that only appropriate pleas, on a proper basis, are accepted by the prosecution.”

He says that all CPS in-house prosecutors are taking the course. “This process is nearly complete,” he writes.

“However, it is the collective view of the president of the Queen’s Bench division, the attorney general and me that the acceptance of inappropriate pleas, or bases of pleas, is not, by any means, confined to prosecutors employed by the CPS, but extends to the self-employed Bar – both junior and senior.”

“The CPS is currently exploring with the Bar how we can engage in joint and shared training; in particular we are discussing how the e-learning course on the acceptance of pleas can be made available to CPS advocate panel members.”

He suggests that they could do the course as part of ‘continuing professional development’ training (CPD).

He also urges prosecutors to “re-familiarise” themselves with the attorney general’s guidelines on the acceptance of pleas.

He continues: “It is axiomatic that when a plea is accepted to a less serious offence than is demonstrated by the evidence, or a basis that does not properly reflect the victim’s experience, a great deal of damage is done to public confidence in the criminal-justice system.”

Exaro today publishes the e-mail in full.

A spokeswoman for the CPS said that it was unable to say who would pay for the training.

One London prosecutor who asked not to be identified reacted angrily to the e-mail: “It will cost a fortune, and make no difference at all other than to end up with many more trials if prosecutors will not be reasonable. Barristers to whom I have spoken are furious and feel insulted.”

“It concerns me that the DPP does not trust barristers – particularly that they do not trust senior barristers – to make the right decisions.”

“Before a guilty plea is accepted, we run it by the officer involved, the CPS and, wherever possible, the victim.”

“When you go to trial, cases are never exactly as outlined in the prosecution case. If prosecutors are not allowed to be flexible, it will result in more cases going to trial.”

“While we all have to do CPD hours anyway, we do not want to be forced to take this particular course.”

According to the DPP’s e-mail, guilty pleas currently make up 73 per cent of pleas entered at crown court, up from the 65 per cent recorded by the Ministry of Justice in the last quarter of 2011.

However, Starmer’s move won the backing of some barristers. The high-profile defence QC, Michael Wolkind, said: “It is a good idea for people to have a reminder. It sounds like a mandatory step, taken by a concerned DPP, who thinks that people are too tempted to compromise prosecutions without care.”

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Exaro News investigates matters of public interest and seeks to uncover the truth.