Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Theresa May's Proposals Are A Return To The 1970s

I appreciate that the BBC television series Life on Mars has provided a certain unwarranted sentimentality about 1970s policing procedure. But the new Home Secretary Theresa May’s proposal to return to the police the power to decide, in a huge number of cases tried by magistrates, whether a suspect is charged is taking things way too far.

Yes, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can be completely rubbish – not least when it comes to its repeated failure to bring prosecutions against serving police officers. But there were fundamental reasons why the police were themselves stripped of powers to make these decisions in the first place.

Before the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, which created the CPS, there had been considerable unease about the way that the police made decisions about prosecutions. During the 1970s, police forces around the country used different standards and not every force had its own independent prosecution department, although this had been the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Police as far back as 1962. Moreover, too many weak cases were being brought to court, leading to a high number of acquittals. There were serious doubts that an individual officer who had investigated a case could ever be relied upon to make a fair decision whether to prosecute or not - and equally serious doubts about how their case evidence was often obtained.

The Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure under Sir Cyril Philips, whose report was published in 1981, had been established following wrongful convictions for the murder of Maxwell Confait in Catford in 1972. A prosecution should never have reached the courts, based on confessions by minors extracted through police violence, raised many of the concerns that the Commission went on to consider – the proper balance between the rights of suspects and need for justice. Sadly a similar case from the 1970s, that of Stephen Downing, took much longer to see justice served – it wasn’t until 2002, after he had served 27 years in prison, that Downing was finally released.

On the day that the Independent's political editor has used his paper's front page to laud Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as the reincarnation of Lord Grey, with Clegg reassuring jittery Lib Dems by promising to end to "obsessive lawmaking [that] simply makes criminals out of ordinary people", one of Clegg's cabinet colleagues proposes a massive step backwards to the 1970s and a means of deciding on prosecutions that has demonstrably failed.

Now that, my friends, is sadly what coalition government is going to look like again and again over the coming months.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

But the police already have this power with fixed penalties and official cautions; most people choose the fixed penalty or caution and end up with a criminal record rather than risk losing in magistrates’ court or even just to avoid the stress and publicity of going to court.

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