DPP faces questions about her future
The position of Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, was said last night to be increasingly untenable after the further aquittals of journalists and the decision not to prosecute Lord Janner of Braunstone over sex abuse claims.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale who has campaigned to expose historical child abuse, said that the decision of Mrs Saunders to drop the Janner case, made against the advice of a criminal QC who specialises in sex abuse cases, was an “error of judgment”.
“It is very damaging and her reputation is damaged,” he said. “We are moving towards where she should be considering her position. There have been failures here and the victims who accuse Lord Janner of abuse are very angry — as is the wider child abuse community and the broader public.
“It all gives the impression that there has been a cover-up. Why is it harder to attempt to prosecute a lord, a significant member of the establishment, than someone else? That is what the public are asking themselves.”
Liz Dux, a lawyer with Slater & Gordon who acts for many alleged victims of Jimmy Savile, said that the DPP had made a judgment that had “done nothing for public confidence in the judicial system”.
“It would have been far preferable for this to have been a judge’s decision and even if he was not fit to plead or stand trial, there would still be an opportunity for there to have been questioning and the judge would have made a finding on the facts. As it is, the public perception is that it is all an institutional cover-up.”
David Corker, a criminal lawyer with Corker Binning, said that the DPP should have invoked a special “fitness to plead” procedure so that there could be a trial of the issues. That would have given the opportunity for his lawyers to cross-examine accusers, he said.
Others, though, leapt to the DPP’s defence. Jonathan Caplan, QC, said a fair trial could not have taken place and any judge would have halted the proceedings. Stephen Parkinson, of Kingsley Napley, said it would have been “unjust” to try Lord Janner if he could not defend himself.
Yet that decision, and the journalist acquittals, put Mrs Saunders under renewed scrutiny, even if most of the journalist prosecutions were begun under her predecessor, Sir Keir Starmer, now a Labour parliamentary candidate, and his key legal adviser, Alison Levitt, QC.
Mrs Saunders’s appointment as DPP nearly 18 months ago was applauded: she is only the second woman to hold the post and the first from within the CPS itself. She was liked, seen as sure-footed and known in the profession: her husband, Neil Saunders, is a criminal barrister.
She had also won praise as chief crown prosecutor for London — memorably for bringing to book two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence; and for the handling of hundreds of defendants after the 2011 riots. That earned her a Companion of the Order of the Bath.
With a practical, business-like style, she knows about procedures and how organisations work, because her career has been chiefly inside the CPS. Some say she lacks the bold individualist mindset of a barrister from private practice.
Yet her tenure as DPP has been hit by crises: it is unlucky that she is facing the biggest cuts in the CPS history and been forced to seek an extra £50 million to cope with a rise in sex and terrorism cases. Critics point out, though, that she has not halted the costly pursuit through the courts of journalists.
Her focus on rape and domestic violence has boosted convictions but recent guidance to prosecutors, to put more onus on the issue of consent, prompted critics to say it imposed a new burden of proof on defendants to show that a complainant did consent.
She brought the first prosecution for female genital mutilation (FGM) but it was then thrown out in February this year after only 30 minutes of jury deliberations.
Some say she also lacks political nous. She announced that prosecution just before appearing before the home affairs committee of MPs inquiring into FGM, giving the look of acting under political pressure. Soon after the trial, she spoke at a conference on lessons learnt — but only of training and protocols.
Irrespective of her own position, the CPS now faces a crisis of public confidence. One lawyer said: “She is under huge pressure. She is a good person but she is a manager more than a lawyer.” The DPP will need all those management skills to restore its reputation.
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