By Matt Ross

01 Dec 2014

The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, started in the job just as phone hacking and sex abuse trials put her organisation under the media spotlight. She tells CSW about a turbulent first year leading the Crown Prosecution Service. Photo by Mark Weeks

The last director of public prosecutions (DPP) worked hard to raise the profile of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS): as he prepared to leave the job in October 2013, Keir Starmer told CSW that it had “been a deliberate policy to go out and explain ourselves”.

His successor, Alison Saunders, has needed no such policy. For since she took up the post a year ago, the phone hacking trial and a string of historic sex abuse cases have attracted unprecedented public interest. Mixing sex, crime, celebrity, politics and courtroom drama, the convictions of figures such as Rolf Harris and Max Clifford – and, equally, the ‘not guilty’ verdicts on Bill Roache and Nigel Evans MP – could have been designed to feed a media circus. “Private office kept saying for the first few months: ‘Oh, it’s really busy but it’s going to quieten down’ – but it hasn’t,” Saunders reflects. “So I’m rather assuming that this is how it will be. And you know, that’s not a bad thing.”

In the past, she adds, the CPS was “incredibly reticent to come out from the shadows. Nobody knew who we were, what we did – so I think it’s good that we have a profile. The more the public understand what we do, the more they can have confidence in what we do – and then they’ll continue to support prosecutions.” Behind this determinedly glass-half-full approach, though, Saunders does chafe against the constraints on the CPS’s ability to defend itself. “We can’t explain sometimes the ins and outs, because it would be absolutely wrong to try cases in the media and to set out what the prosecution case was,” she says. Doing so would undermine the courts and smear someone found not guilty – “but it is sometimes frustrating not to be able to answer some of the ill-founded criticisms.”

Innocent people cleared of sex offence allegations must feel a similar sense that their reputation has been unfairly damaged: Nigel Evans has argued for defendant anonymity unless people are convicted. But whilst Saunders recognises that “sometimes the acquittal perhaps is not quite as publicised as the original charges, and it must have an impact on their life”, she adds that “we’ve seen cases where if we hadn’t named defendants, other victims wouldn’t have come forward.” It is, she says carefully, “a really difficult issue.”

The DPP well understands the complexities around prosecuting sexual offences, having first worked in the field back in 1991 in the CPS’s Policy Directorate. And the older the case, the more elusive and fragmented the evidence: the CPS tried to dig out information for the Wanless Inquiry into historic sexual abuse claims and the police search for missing Home Office documents, “but we can’t find anything in our archives under any of the search terms they’ve provided us with. It’s not surprising in some ways, because of the destruction policies in those days: it would have gone long ago.” Indeed, now that the Wanless report has been published, it is evident he was unable to locate any of the missing files.

“Staff know I come from a background where I understand the business and know what’s going on”

Saunders is having more luck with her push to bring more prosecutions for stalking – cases rose more than 20% in 2013-14. And she’s enthusiastic about the new ‘victim’s right to review’, introduced by Starmer in June 2013, which gives those who’ve suffered from crime the right to insist that the CPS reconsider its decision on whether to bring charges. “The number of people who have asked for a review is quite small, meaning that in the majority of cases victims understand our decisions,” Saunders comments: of the 114,000 decisions made between its launch and March 2014, 162 – or 0.14% – have been overturned, with 53 of those now resulting in a conviction. The fact that the CPS is changing some of its decisions, the DPP argues, “shows that we’re a learning organisation: we’ll change our decisions if they’re wrong, and feed the learning back to individual lawyers”.

As Saunders acknowledges, the agency doesn’t always get it right for victims: one police detective has told CSW that growing delays in CPS decisions on whether to prosecute in sex offence cases are resulting in more victims refusing to testify. The DPP doesn’t try to dodge the question: the CPS has just set up 13 regional sex offence units “with specialist lawyers, so the quality of work has gone up considerably,” she says, “but then we hit this increase in rape and serious sexual assault – so we recognise that there are some problems around the country in delays and advice on cases going back to the police.” The CPS has been working to tackle the delays, she adds, and “we have a review underway to make sure that in the light of that changing landscape, we have the right resources in the right places.” In other words, the new units were overwhelmed; it sounds like they’ll need some extra cash.

Cash is, of course, in short supply these days – on the defence as well as the prosecution side. Starmer warned last year that cuts to legal aid must not threaten defendants’ ability to choose their representatives or their access to specialist advice. But Saunders says this is no longer a worry: “My predecessor made it clear that what we are concerned about is to make sure that there were still fair trials, that we had people properly represented – and we haven’t yet seen that not happening: I think the balance remains pretty equal”.

Saunders’ caution on this very political matter is clear – she’s a very different figure from Starmer, an outspoken human rights lawyer now active in the Labour Party. A career prosecutor, Saunders has worked for the CPS since its foundation in 1986, and is the first insider to be appointed DPP. Born in Aberdeen and educated in Brixton, Cardiff, Lancashire and Leeds University, she’s a true child of the UK – and now an adult of the civil service, having spent her whole career touring prosecution, advice and policy roles in the CPS and the Attorney General’s Office. During that time, she’s been involved in some high-profile events – in 1996 she advised against holding a second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, and in 2012 she secured murder convictions for two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers – but it wasn’t until she led the effort to prosecute rioters and looters after the 2011 disturbances that she really came into the public eye.

Her new job as an accounting officer responsible to Parliament must have been a fast learning curve. Is facing a select committee anything like standing up in court? “Completely different!” she laughs. “You know the subject you’re there to talk about, but anything else can crop up. And there are a large number of people challenging and questioning you, coming at issues from different angles. It’s quite challenging!” She’s having more fun learning about her fellow permanent secretaries’ roles – something that makes her feel “very lucky” about the DPP’s unusual level of autonomy. Her ministers “superintend” rather than direct her work: “I set the priorities, agree them with the law officers, and then we move forward,” she explains. “And the law officers help us protect our independence, acting as a buffer against any political overtures.”

This freedom from direct political control helps explain why, when the PM reshuffled both the attorney general and the solicitor general in July, the CPS didn’t experience the about-turn so common in departments of state after a reshuffle. “We’re currently in the middle of a process where we’re talking about key issues for the service, briefing [the ministers], obtaining their views,” says Saunders. “But certainly so far, I think they’re happy with the priorities that I’ve set and the way in which the service is going, so I don’t see many major changes”.

The DPP’s long experience inside the organisation meant she could set those priorities on her first day in the job, she says – and it’s helpful as she pushes through reforms, because “staff know I come from a background where I understand the business and know what’s going on.” In fact, she adds, her appointment has been a “big morale boost” for the staff, who’ve sometimes felt: “Why should we always have somebody coming from the outside to lead us? Why can’t we produce somebody of the right calibre?” But isn’t there a danger that, lacking experience outside the CPS, she might fail to challenge long-established mindsets or processes? “Well, I’ve never been a particularly quiet prosecutor in the 28 years I’ve been here! I’ve always challenged things,” she replies. “There is the danger that you just go with the status quo, but that’s not at all what I’m about.”

Sticking with the status quo is, anyway, not an option: the CPS is a key player in the criminal justice system’s vast and complex shift to digital. Good progress has been made in building a shared system with the police and magistrates courts, says Saunders: “The police are transferring 99% of files to us electronically for the first hearing. In the magistrates courts, we are almost totally digital: CPS prosecutors there have tablets, and stand up to present their cases digitally.”

“Crown court is more slow – and possibly slower than we would have liked,” she continues. “They’re bigger cases, more paper, and the court services equipment needs to be updated so that the judges can look at papers electronically.” Progress is being made, with the use of digital files for early guilty pleas and first hearings – but whilst the CPS now has a unified IT system, “we’re working with other organisations that have got lots of different ones, so that undoubtedly causes challenges.” There is huge potential here to streamline processes and speed up delivery, but also obvious risks in trying to move a set of organisations simultaneously into a new, technology-based way of working: it’s essential, for example, that in “the programme being rolled out to digitise the courts and upgrade the equipment, there’s close working with us to make sure that it’s all compatible. We’ve all seen cases where we’ve had CCTV or videos that we’ve tried to play in court and it’s not compatible with the equipment – and that’s just not acceptable.” The ultimate goal, Saunders adds, is a universal system for sharing files which allows key parties such as the police, courts, and defence and prosecution lawyers to access the right elements at the right time.

The problems in shifting all this work online, Saunders believes, help explain why CPS staff were so negative when asked last year in the Civil Service People Survey whether they have the right tools for the job: 57% gave a positive response – a four point increase on 2012, but 14 points behind the civil service average. “We have gone through a very challenging and large programme to digitise a workforce,” she points out, “and our IT system, our case management system was designed some time ago, and not for what we’re using it for now.” Within a couple of years the CPS should move onto a common platform with the Ministry of Justice and the courts, but meanwhile “we’ve stretched [the IT system] right to its very limit; we have made improvements, but sometimes it can be clunky. Whereas the new generation will have a much more effective system.”

“If you’re standing up [in court] with a tablet that’s not connected and you need to check something, it’s not great”

The current generation, though, have not had an easy time. Prosecutors are being asked to handle cases using tablets, but not all of the courts yet have wifi – and “if you’re standing up with a tablet that’s not connected and you need to check something, it’s not great,” she says, with masterful understatement. “We’re putting wifi in so that prosecutors can link back into the system.”

The other big challenge revealed in the people survey was poor line management: the CPS is 10 points behind the civil service average for those agreeing that “my manager is open to my ideas”, for example, and 16 points behind on “I would be supported if I try a new idea, even if it may not work”. Saunders acknowledges the problem, but explains that the service has already acted to tackle it – on two fronts.

“Just because you’re a good lawyer, that doesn’t mean to say that you’re going to be a good manager,” she says. “Our most recent structure recognises that and ensures that you don’t have to go along the management chain to move up: you can be a good lawyer and still progress.”

Meanwhile, the CPS has enrolled all of its line managers below the senior civil service onto a management development programme – something that, she believes, helps explain the 11 point rise in the proportion of staff agreeing that learning and development activities have improved their performance.

On these management and technology issues, Saunders is frank and direct – but then we move back into political territory, and her guard goes up again. Have the pay controls damaged her ability to recruit or retain good staff? “I think the way in which the external environment has changed probably helps us to recruit,” she replies: since the recruitment freeze thawed, “we’re seeing no shortage of people applying.” Does she mean that legal aid cuts have weakened the competing private sector jobs market? “Just generally the environment outside,” she replies, moving on to talk about the range of work, flexible working and good terms offered by the service. These help compensate for lower salaries, she suggests: “When you take into account all the benefits, possibly all the differentials are not as great.”

Those differentials can look pretty substantial, though – especially in big, high-profile cases against well-funded organisations, like the Coulson and Brookes case. News International was reported to be seeking up to £25m from the government to cover the cost of defending its acquitted staff (it has since withdrawn its claim, after a judge said it would have to produce internal records), whilst the CPS puts its own costs at £1.7m. Certainly Guardian reporter Nick Davies, who sat through the whole trial, thought the CPS was heavily outgunned. Was it a fair fight? “I think it was,” Saunders replies, accusing Davies of a series of factual errors; anyway, she adds, it was up to the defendants to decide on their own representation – but whatever team they’d fielded, “it wouldn’t have impacted on the resources we put in.”

Saunders has in the past pointed out that if the CPS budget continues to fall, then ultimately political decisions will have to be made about what it concentrates its remaining resources on – but she is far more comfortable with the management end of her job. Both her predecessor and her former boss – the last attorney general, Dominic Grieve – are noisy defenders of the Human Rights Act. Is the Act looking vulnerable now? “It’s really important that we maintain protection for individuals, but I think how government decide to do that is a matter for them,” she replies. Alison Saunders is not against campaigning – she’s worked for years to get crime victims a better deal out of the criminal justice system – but she does prefer to stick to her brief.

And this, perhaps, is quite understandable. The DPP has two new ministers to keep on-side, a slew of internal management and technological challenges, and a pipeline of high-profile cases likely to keep the media entertained for some time yet. “It’s been a hugely busy year,” she says. “I probably underestimated how busy it was going to be.” The CPS’s first home-grown chief may be working hard to plug gaps in her budget, IT systems and staff morale, but there’s one thing she’s not short of: publicity.

Read the most recent articles written by Matt Ross - Civil service social mobility vision bags top prize


Share this page
Partner content