Fears over reduced prosecution counsel in murder cases


15 April 2011

by Luke Thomas

The Crown Prosecution Service is set to reduce the number of prosecuting counsel assigned to some murder cases, leading to situations in which the prosecution may consist of a single barrister.

Legal commentators and victim support groups have expressed fear at the move, which Michael Mansfield QC criticised as making “no sense whatsoever”. In cases with a large amount of defendants – who will probably each be assigned a leading and junior barrister – this could lead to a single prosecutor being significantly outnumbered by defence counsel.

"The amount of work on major cases, particularly on multihanded cases, for a prosecutor on their own is impossible,” commented Mansfield. “When you look at the analysis of the case, the disclosure, it's an impossible task. Most of the cases I've been doing over 40 years I rely on a junior counsel to do the donkey work, to draft documents, to check documents, to keep notes in court.”

Concerns have been expressed over upcoming cases which take the approach of a reduced prosecuting counsel, an approach which the CPS is believed to have adopted as an attempt to lower costs amidst a climate of budget cuts. There have also been criticisms over delays in instructing counsel for both sides, meaning that cases have been pushed back with the extra costs being borne by the court.

John Cooper QC, a visiting law professor at Cardiff University, elaborated on the worries that have arisen, stating that “the fact that the prosecution may not have the same depth of ability will clearly put the prosecution at a disadvantage and this will be wrong for the purposes of justice.

“No serious criminal matter of complexity is capable of being run by a single barrister.”

A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that counsel was assigned on a case-by-case basis without any “automatic assumption” being made, and that the CPS “ensure that every case at the crown court is prepared thoroughly and presented properly”.

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