In the Media

Prosecutors failing victims of crime

PUBLISHED July 31, 2006

Prosecutors are failing victims of crime despite their commitment to placing the victim at the heart of the justice system, File on 4 has learned.

The programme has examined cases where victims and their relatives feel profoundly let down by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Some blame incompetence while others believe the pursuit of government targets is side-lining victims' concerns.

The programme considers the case of Christopher Benson, 20, who was killed in a hit and run last year outside his grandmother's house on Britannia Road in Morley, south of Leeds.

In a bid to escape prosecution, the driver, Inkthab Alam, set his car on fire and then phoned the police to report it stolen.

Police saw through the cover-up and charged Alam with failing to stop and perverting the course of justice.

Christopher's family were expecting a charge of causing death by dangerous driving but instead the prosecutor had decided on a lesser charge.

His mother Lynnette Twitchett says: "I really I couldn't come to terms with the fact that he was going to get away with killing him...He wasn't gong to be punished."

The decision of the CPS to press a charge only of careless driving also came as a surprise to the police who had investigated the case.

"All the officers involved believed this case warranted a charge of death by dangerous driving," says Det Insp Mick McDermott.

And so did the judge who described the CPS's charge as "nonsensical" and went on to criticise the prosecution.

"This case is a matter of some amazement to me," he told the court. "This was a serious piece of driving which fully justified a charge of causing death by dangerous driving."

Alam was jailed for two years and four months for failing to stop and perverting the course of justice and a four-year driving ban for the crash that killed Christopher.

The CPS insists the evidence did not meet the high test for a charge of dangerous driving - defined as "far below the standard expected of a normal prudent driver".

Political imperatives

Prosecutors are facing criticism that they bring too low a charge in hope of securing a guilty plea.

Prof Andrew Sanders, head of Law at Manchester University, is concerned that the political imperative to increase the number of convictions may be at odds with the policy of putting victims at the heart of justice.

"One of the huge pressures on the CPS from the government is to increase the conviction rate to close the justice gap as it's often called," he says.

"Now one way of at least reducing that justice gap, one way of increasing the conviction rate is to secure more guilty pleas.

"And one way of inducing someone to plead guilty is to offer them a reduced charge."

One of the official targets for the CPS is to increase the number of convictions, another is to increase the rate of guilty pleas.

But Peter Lewis, who sits on the CPS board of directors, is adamant that these do not amount to incentives to bring low charges.

"Our lawyers don't make decisions on the basis of target or budget...that's obviously a matter for senior managers to take into account," he says.

Cases discontinued

Under the new so-called Statutory Charging Scheme, charging decisions are now taken by the CPS except in minor cases.

Until the law changed, it would have been a police officer who decided whether to charge the suspect and, if so, with what offence.

The case papers would then go to the CPS for prosecution, where any gaps in the evidence might be detected rather late in the day.

But the changes may not be having the desired effect. Stephen Wooler, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of the CPS, has studied the proportion of cases which have to be stopped by the CPS.

He says up to 15% of cases are discontinued either because of poor preparatory work, reluctant witnesses or insufficient evidence.

The CPS accepts that this is a key area in which it has to improve on current performance.

File on 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 25 July at 2000 BST, and repeated on Sunday 30 July at 1700 BST. Or listen online - see links on the right hand side of this page.