In 1994–95, out of some 1.38 million cases, 161,429 were discontinued. In 1995–96, out of some 1.28 million cases, the number discontinued totalled 152,729.
Is the Attorney-General aware that, between 1980 and 1989, the number of notifiable offences recorded by the police increased by 96 per cent? During the same period, the number of individuals found guilty at Crown and magistrates courts fell by 31 per cent. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciate the anger and frustration felt by the victims of crime on finding that the Crown Prosecution Service does not pursue criminals through the court procedures?
I would well understand it if that happened, but the hon. Gentleman's figures do not show anything of the sort. They refer to the number of cases notified to the police, which are different from the number of cases in which the police are able to bring charges to the attention of the Crown Prosecution Service. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be pleased to note the ever-closer working relationship between the police and the CPS, which is the effective way to bring wrongdoers to justice and thereby best satisfy the victim.
Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice the extraordinary recent case in which a business man who arrested a persistent burglar on his premises found himself prosecuted? If so, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the charges against the business man were completely thrown out by the jury and that the judge awarded costs to the defendant? Why was that prosecution not rejected by the Crown Prosecution Service in the first place? Did it completely take leave of its senses in bringing that case?
I noted that case and the same sort of questions entered my mind. I rapidly discovered that there was much more to the case than met the eye. The victim—who was a past wrongdoer on a number of occasions—was apprehended by not one but four people, who repeatedly assaulted him over three hours. At no point during that time were the police notified.
Can the Attorney-General confirm that discontinuance of cases is never influenced by a manpower shortage in the CPS? Is he aware that, at branch level, there is considerable dissatisfaction among CPS staff because of the consistent failure to replace professional staff when they leave, and that many professional staff feel discouraged by the service and are leaving in significant numbers?
I am certainly not aware of the latter point about professional staff leaving in significant numbers. I will consider the matter, but I do not believe that that is true. I am certainly aware of the pressures that come on any organisation when budgets are under pressure, but the CPS is rallying extremely well to that and I look forward to seeing it as I travel throughout the country in the coming weeks.
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about cases that the CPS decides not to pursue? Is he aware of the deep frustration felt by police officers who have spent a long time preparing what they regard as open and shut cases, only to find that the CPS does not appear willing to pursue them, for reasons unknown to the police? What would be his advice to a police officer who has been frustrated in that way? Should he turn to his Member of Parliament, as he has in this case, or is there a better procedure that police should pursue? Should it not be the CPS's objective to ensure that the police officer concerned in a case has a full understanding of how and why it has behaved on that case?
The short answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's serious question is yes. The CPS goes to great lengths to ensure that, on any occasion where it needs to discontinue a case, the police are not only fully informed, but fully consulted. Discontinuances that are not agreed with the police amount to only some 4 per cent. of those that are discussed with them, which is three quarters of all such cases. I advise my hon. Friend's constituent, who is a police officer, to get in touch with the police administration support unit or the crime support unit that relates to his local branch. That should provide a thoroughly effective method of communication. What I do understand from my hon. Friend is that it is essential that communication gets through from the officer to the CPS and vice versa so that everyone, including the victim, understands exactly what is happening.
What proportion of cases accepted for prosecution are subsequently abandoned and at what stage in the criminal process is that decision taken? Is it not clear that the later in the process criminal proceedings are abandoned, the greater the wasted costs and the greater the concern about the original judgment to launch the prosecution?
That may be the case. Obviously, the further down the road one goes, the more costs have been incurred and it is undesirable to abandon a case at a late stage. If it must be abandoned, it is right that it should be done as early as possible. That is why the CPS and the police are working closely to "get it right first time", as it is now known in the jargon, so that the police can provide the CPS with the proper material from the outset. Joint performance management will, I hope, improve the proportion of cases that are got right first time. The number of discontinued cases is quite small. If the hon. Gentleman considers the statistics, he will notice, for example, that the number discontinued in the Crown court is only 8 per cent. As a lawyer, he knows how many difficulties can arise, especially with witnesses, who may disappear, so that is not an especially remarkable figure.