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31 Oct 2009

Personal bonuses for CPS lawyers

Robert Brown , partner, Corker Binning, contributor to an article for The Times Online on CPS lawyers receiving personal bonuses linked to their success in confiscating criminal assets.

Bonuses for lawyers who seize criminal assets ‘risk undermining justice’

Sean O’Neill and Frances Gibb

Crown Prosecution Service lawyers are receiving personal bonuses linked to their success in confiscating criminal assets, The Times has learnt.

About £1.37 million has been paid in personal bonuses to staff over the past two financial years, the CPS disclosed under Freedom of Information legislation. It did not say what proportion was for hitting confiscation targets, but the disclosure will add to concern among lawyers that providing financial incentives to prosecutors could undermine the criminal justice system.

The confiscation targets are also being increased year by year: the target for this year is a total of 4,743 confiscation orders across England and Wales, with a value of £106 million.

The organisation, which obtained confiscation orders totalling £116 million in the courts last year, also benefits in recouping 18.5 per cent of the money seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The rest goes to the police and other justice departments.

For the past four years targets have been exceeded: last year’s was for more than 4,400 confiscation orders, with 4,717 actually achieved. The £116 million seized was against a target of £109 million.

The Times reported this week that the powerful asset-seizure laws, introduced in 2003 to deprive crime barons of their luxury lifestyles, are being extended to local councils and quangos, including Transport for London and the Rural Payments Agency.

Like the CPS, these will receive a share of the money they confiscate.

“The incentivisation scheme is something that would make anyone who is committed to the rule of law uncomfortable,” said Andrew Bodnar, coeditor of the leading casebook on asset recovery law. “If the prosecuting agency is given a financial incentive to prosecute then there is a danger of undermining public confidence in those agencies.”

Robert Brown, a criminal lawyer with Corker Binning solicitors and a member of the Times law panel, said: “It is terribly important that the judicial process as a whole remains independent and that prosecutors make decisions in their role as ‘ministers’ of justice. That means that they are taken without any possible risk of bias and must be fair.”

The extension of the powers to non-police bodies was defended by the senior policeman with national oversight of financial investigation.

Mick Creedon, Chief Constable of Derbyshire, said in a letter to The Times: “The public rightly expect all public bodies to disrupt criminals whenever they can, to remove their criminal profit and to protect the public purse. To suggest that these latest developments are sinister and will focus on law-abiding members of the public is far from the truth.”

But Caroline Spelman, the Shadow Communities Secretary, expressed concern over the extension of the powers to town halls.

She said: “We have already seen how surveillance laws designed to tackle terror and serious crime have been routinely abused and over-used by town hall officials.

“I fear these new powers to inspect financial records and seize assets will also end up being misused and will divert resources to minor breaches like being late in paying a parking fine.”

Mr Brown said the CPS had to attract high quality staff and that would relate to what lawyers earned. “But if we are going to have some kind of bonus culture or performance-related pay it has got to be designed so that it prevents the public losing confidence.”

Some regions are particularly successful in seizing criminals’ assets.

Last year the total target for London was £19.6 million but the actual figure attained was £38.5 million.

In Cumbria, more than £8 million worth of assets were seized against a target of £930,000.

Merseyside brought in £4.7 million of assets against a target of £3.96 million and South Yorkshire £3.2 million against a target of £2.4 million.

The CPS strongly denied any link between asset recovery and bonuses, however.

A spokesperson said: “Bonuses are not paid to senior staff solely on the basis of the amout of money realised through the Proceed of Crime Act but for meeting a wide range of 18 targets, of which POCA is just one.”

Prosecutors had to be satisfied that there was evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against each defendant on each charge and that it was in the public interest to prosecute.

For a court to make a confiscation order, defendants had to have been convicted of offences from which they had benefited, she added.

“We make no apology for vigorously pursuing criminals’ assets following conviction and where there are identified victims, returning those assets to the victims by way of compensation.”

Seizure of assets deprived criminals of the means to fund more crimes, reduced the incentive for crime and promoted confidence in the justice system.”

The money went to frontline services, to community projects to help the fight against crime.