We are often informed that failings in any public body are due to a lack of investment, a shortage of staff, or bureaucratic distractions that get in the way of doing the job. The Police Force has regularly wheeled-out these reasons (excuses?) whenever they get something wrong in a major way. But up until as recently as the mid-1980s, the police workload could be considerably more demanding because it was down to officers who were investigating a case to also prosecute. Bar the occasional intervention of the Director of Public Prosecutions for significant and especially serious cases, the vast majority of prosecutions in this country were firmly in the hands of the police. On one hand, this might explain why so many innocent people were sentenced either to hang or to lengthy prison sentences; on the other, it meant policemen would follow a case through from start to finish, having invested months of work in it and bringing a thorough knowledge of the case to court.
After many decades of deliberation over several high-profile miscarriages of justice, the eventual establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1986 saw an organisation independent of both police and government take over a great deal of this aspect of police work, leaving the police with the job of prosecuting minor offences whilst the CPS took on the ‘glamour’ jobs. The new body was supposed to reduce the substantial number of wrongful convictions that had occurred when the police had been left to their own devices, and though the Attorney General was nominated to represent the CPS in Parliament, he had minimal involvement in its duties other than nominating its head. In theory, the CPS was formed with laudable intentions and staffed by solicitors and barristers whose presumed impartiality compared to the often blinkered aim of police detectives to get their man at all costs was supposed to ensure a fairer system of justice for all.
Technically, the CPS should be detached from any political influence or bias and simply attend to the function it was set up to attend to; yet, in recent years it has increasingly extended its original remit so that it has morphed into a morally-crusading collective of Cromwellian proportions, acting as the legal wing of the Court of Public Opinion. Its head now tends to be someone who comes to the position with a predetermined agenda they seek to impose on the organisation, stepping outside of its official role and behaving with all the zealous fanaticism of a nineteenth century reform group. The CPS was not established because the country needed a judicial equivalent of the Festival of Light; but those appointed to run it now appear to view themselves as the lovechild of Matthew Hopkins and Mary Whitehouse.
That waxen vacuum of personality, Keir Starmer, was both the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008 to 2013, following a successful career as a QC. Many long suspected his political allegiances leaned towards Labour, and just as God-fearing Tony Blair converted to Catholicism upon retiring from public office (confirming long-held suspicions), Starmer wasted little time in announcing his intention to stand as a Labour candidate at the 2015 General Election the moment he handed over the CPS to his very own Igor, Alison Saunders. This was no great surprise, as the manner in which he ran the CPS was characterised by a rigid adherence to the worst aspects of the common sense-free, New Labour rhetoric of the ridiculous.
He was perhaps a little too eager to get his face on television, yet not so eager to publicise his persecution of Paul Chambers, the man who had posted a tongue-in-cheek tweet of frustration from Robin Hood Airport when his plane was delayed; according to the charge brought against him, Chambers’ joke comment about blowing the airport sky-high was ‘a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. Chambers was found guilty, fined £385, forced to pay £600 costs and lost his job in the process; he embarked upon three separate appeals before his conviction was eventually quashed, becoming something of a cause célèbre and attracting the support of prominent figures from the world of comedy such as Stephen Fry, Al Murray and Graham Linehan.
Interestingly, it later transpired the CPS were prepared to drop the case before the third appeal, but their offer to do so failed to reach Chambers following the intervention of Keir Starmer, who was intent on pursuing a case that should never have resulted in an arrest, let alone charge or conviction. Understandably, it must be a frightening prospect for the faceless to lose face (hence Starmer’s overruling of his underlings), yet despite the calls of Chambers’ constituency MP at the time, the Tory Louise Mensch, for Starmer’s behaviour to be investigated by a House of Commons committee, her calls resulted in no such investigation. Instead, Starmer rounded-off his stint as CPS Godfather by overseeing the beginning of the Yewtree circus, the perfect carriage clock to mark his retirement, along with the token gong for a goon, the inevitable knighthood.
Undaunted by the extortionate costs to the taxpayer that many of the unnecessary prosecutions he has pursued with vigour have incurred, Starmer shows no signs of smoothing out his self-righteous moralistic edges for his next hoped-for venture into public office. As he prepares to carry on the crusade as MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Starmer has continued to air his intentions to abolish the concept of ‘innocent till proven guilty’ via a series of public proposals engineered by his friends from the Victims lobby, whereas his bespectacled squat successor as CPS supremo, Alison Saunders, has picked up where Starmer left off by sticking to the script whenever a Yewtree trial has collapsed, refusing to countenance the notion of a witch-hunt, yet gloating over a ‘victory’ when the CPS’s crusade yields a sacrificial lamb.
With the ‘we-are-not-amused’ demeanour of a primary school headmistress who refuses to crack a smile when a boy breaks wind during the assembly she’s hosting, Alison Saunders has ensured her face is an even more regular fixture on the nation’s TV screens than her predecessor’s plastic profile had been. But the head of the CPS, much like the head of MI5 used to be before Stella Rimington went public, should be largely anonymous and unseen; the head of the CPS should refrain from acting as a celebrity moral watchdog; that is not supposed to be part of the job description.
Ironically, Saunders’ early tenure in the job was marked by a willingness to prosecute those who had made false allegations of rape, such as Eleanor de Frietas, who committed suicide when the CPS took control of a private prosecution against her by the man she had accused. Perhaps swayed from this particular path by the outraged public reaction to it, Saunders has significantly changed tack since then, recently stating that rape prosecutions making it to court will increase by a third this year. A crystal ball apparently now comes with the job, along with the right to move the legal goalposts when Joe Public demands it via his unelected representatives on Fleet Street.
If the formation of the Crown Prosecution Service was intended to lighten the police load and emphasise its independence from Plod, it is clearly failing in that duty as it approaches its thirtieth birthday. The extent of dubious collusion between CPS and police as revealed in the murky machinations of Yewtree not only makes a mockery of the organisation’s alleged independence, but brings into question its very raison d’être.