Prosecuting, Not Photocopying
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If prosecuting is all about advocacy, what's in it for a trainee solicitor?
For the past two years the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has run a highly successful external trainee recruitment campaign. With in excess of 2,000 applications on each occasion it seems the service is a popular choice among would-be solicitors. However, in a part of the profession which appears to be almost exclusively about advocacy, what is the attraction for trainee solicitors, who do not have rights of audience?
Traditionally, a prosecution lawyer would be expected to analyse and present the case against a defendant, with their role limited almost exclusively to court advocacy. This would seem to leave little for the trainee besides doing the photocopying! However, two recent developments in criminal justice have had a significant impact on the role of a CPS lawyer. In 2005 statutory charging handed the decision of whether to charge suspects to the CPS in almost all cases. The aim was to reduce the number of cases that go to court only to be thrown out or receive a not guilty verdict.
Charging authority is given with reference to the Code for Crown Prosecutors. The first part of the decision to charge is a stringent and realistic analysis of the evidence. The question for the prosecutor is: "Is there a realistic prospect of conviction?" This is not unfamiliar territory for prosecutors. However, having statutory responsibility for the decision is a new and challenging development.
If a prosecutor decides there is sufficient evidence to charge a suspect, they must then consider whether this is necessary or desirable - a stage known as the public interest test. Clearly, very serious offences will nearly always require prosecution, particularly where there has been violence or other significant harm to the victim. Factors which may mean that a prosecution would not be desirable include the suspect's attitude to their offending behaviour - for instance, if a minor offence of criminal damage has been committed and the suspect has shown genuine remorse and repaid the victim, it may not be considered to be in the public interest to give the suspect a criminal record.
Analysis of the public interest test requires skills and experience which go beyond the traditional ability to apply law and advocate cases. A good understanding of the issues that affect a diverse range of individuals and communities is essential in trying to assess the impact of a prosecution on the victim, the suspect and the public in general. Trainees with the CPS will be expected to have skills and experience which go beyond the lecture theatre and to be able to apply them from day one.
The latest development, known as conditional cautioning, further tests those abilities. Prosecutors must now consider not only whether a conditional caution is suitable, but also which conditions will be most effective. The aim of this scheme is to provide restorative justice to victims and communities, and to reduce the likelihood of the suspect re-offending. Examples include a condition requiring the suspect to attend a debt management or drug awareness session. They may be asked to repay their victim financially or to do relevant community work.
Learning how to look at the bigger picture of the criminal justice system is essential to the training of CPS lawyers and is both exciting and rewarding. During their training CPS lawyers will be expected to assist their colleagues on a daily basis to make the difficult decisions expected of them. In an area of law where your understanding of people is as important as your knowledge of the law, trainees can play a full and valuable part from the very beginning of their time with the CPS and enjoy the rewards that participation brings.
Jo Lazzari is a trainee solicitor at Cheshire CPS.