Britain’s most senior police officer has accused the Crown Prosecution Service of failing victims of crime by “cherry-picking” easy cases to boost conviction rates instead of taking more suspects to court.
Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said he believed that prosecutors “were not taking on the harder cases” and that a “big effort” was needed to reform the justice system to “let juries and magistrates decide” on suspects’ guilt “rather than lawyers in advance”.
In a further swipe, he warned that prosecutors were also adding to the risk of domestic abuse victims giving up on cases because Covid-style working practices were preventing rapid charging decisions from being taken.
Sir Mark’s comments, which he admitted would be “contentious”, came during an interview with the Evening Standard in which he insisted that his force, which is still reeling from a series of scandals, was making progress in improving the protection of women and girls in the capital.
He said that prosecutions for rape, other serious sexual offending and charging were all up and that his force would soon have completed a list of the 100 most dangerous predatory men in London so that they can be targeted and taken off the streets.
His most significant comments, however, were on the need for a more robust approach from prosecutors. “When you look at the fact that the cases the CPS prosecute, 80 per cent of them are successful, guilty pleas or convictions, that suggests that we’re not taking on the harder cases, cherry-picking the easy cases rather than trying to get as many cases [to court],” Sir Mark said.
“To be successful for victims of all types of crime we need a system that’s prepared to take more difficult cases through and let juries and magistrates decide rather than lawyers in advance.
“The CPS and police should be jointly held to account for bringing as many people to justice as possible, whereas at the moment it’s done too separately and the CPS can pick and choose the cases they want to be held to account for how successful they are.”
Sir Mark said prosecutors were also preventing domestic abuse suspects from being charged immediately because of slow working practices, forcing officers to bail them instead.
“Some pace was taken out of the system during Covid, necessarily some of the challenges of Covid created some interim working practices which is entirely understandable, but for example a large proportion of domestic abuse cases that we could have charged on the night the person was arrested pre-Covid we [now] have to bail for 28 days pending a CPS decision when we know victims are particularly anxious about these cases and a charged offender is a sign that the criminal justice system we’re collectively taking it seriously,” he said.
“When someone is bailed, you increase the risk — we used to be able to charge them more often but there’s now different CPS working arrangements to manage their workloads and that creates a slower process for victims.”
He added: “The public would expect CPS and the police to be jointly getting cases over the line and going as fast as possible because that matters for victims’ trust and confidence. It’s why I think the justice system needs reform.”
Sir Mark admitted that police had to raise their performance too and said his force was working “to improve our support to victims and the evidence files we submit”.
But his comments reflect police frustration that the blame for the failure to bring more offenders to justice is often pinned on officers, rather than problems elsewhere in the criminal justice system. Ministry of Justice data published in February showed that prosecutions across England and Wales in the 12 months to the end of September last year were 16 per cent down on the comparable pre-Covid period to the end of September 2019.
The Commissioner also endorsed the protest by his deputy, Lynne Owens, about an MoJ tweet suggesting that police were mounting “fishing expeditions” over rape complainants’ therapy notes. He said that officers were in fact following prosecutors’ instructions and suggested that in many cases would not be seeking any such material if the decision was left to them.
On the Met’s progress in improving the protection of women, Sir Mark said rape prosecutions were up by 61 per cent in the past 12 months. Undercover officers were also targeting “men who prey on women” outside bars and clubs and a list of the 100 most dangerous predators would be ready next month.
The CPS said it had consistent charging rates over many years, with charges brought in around 77% of cases presented by the police.
Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions, said: “I am surprised and disappointed by the inaccurate comments made by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
“It is not true that prosecutors ‘cherry-pick’ cases to improve prosecution rates. We are proud of our high conviction rate, which currently sits at 82%, but this is not a target.
“We are an independent and demand-led organisation, and can only prosecute cases that are referred to us following a police investigation.
“Every case the CPS reviews is judged fairly according to our legal test and the CPS will never hesitate in taking cases to court when they meet the evidential and public interest threshold.
“We understand the extreme pressures and criticism the Met has come under in recent years and remain committed to working together to see all criminals held to account.
“I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of collaborative work between police and prosecutors that help build strong cases. There is no better example than our joint national action plan on rape, which has delivered an 86% increase in charges since it was introduced in January 2021.
“Yet, it is unfortunate and concerning that the Commissioner’s comments risk damaging further the public’s confidence in reporting crime and their confidence that justice will be done. The CPS remains steadfast in its commitment to working with all police forces in bringing criminals to justice.”