Its main responsibilities are to provide legal advice to the police and other investigative agencies during the course of criminal investigations, to decide whether a suspect should face criminal charges following an investigation and to conduct prosecutions both in the magistrates' courts and the Crown Court.
The Attorney General for England and Wales superintends the CPS's work and answers for it in Parliament, although the Attorney has no influence over the conduct of prosecutions, except when national security is an issue or for a small number of offences that require the Attorney’s permission to prosecute.
Historically in England, with no police forces and no prosecution service, the only route to prosecution was through private prosecutions brought by victims at their own expense or lawyers acting on their behalf. From 1829 onwards, as the police forces were formed, they began to take on the burden of bringing prosecutions against suspected criminals.
Sir John Maule was appointed to be the first Director of Public Prosecutions in 1880, operating as a part of the Home Office; the jurisdiction was only for the decision as to whether to prosecute, and just for a very small number of difficult or important cases; once prosecution had been authorised, the matter was turned over to the Treasury Solicitor. Police forces continued to be responsible for the bulk of cases, sometimes referring difficult ones to the Director.
In 1962 a Royal Commission recommended that police forces set up independent prosecution departments so as to avoid having the same officers investigate and prosecute cases, although technically the prosecuting police officers did so as private citizens. The Royal Commission's recommendation was not implemented by all police forces however, and so in 1978 another Royal Commission was set up, this time headed by Sir Cyril Philips. It reported in 1981, recommending that a single unified Crown Prosecution Service with responsibility for all public prosecutions in England and Wales be set up. A White Paper was released in 1983, becoming the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, which established the CPS under the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions, consisting of a merger of his old department with the existing police prosecution departments. It started operating in 1986.
In 1997, Sir Iain Glidewell was commissioned by the government to investigate reform of the CPS. The inquiry reported in June 1998, finding that 12% of charges brought by police were discontinued by the CPS, and that there were failures to communicate between the police and CPS. The report recommended that the CPS focus more on serious crimes being prosecuted at the Crown Court level, closer co-operation between CPS lawyers and the police, and to change its organisational structure, concurring with an existing government plan to restructure the organisation into 42 regional branches, each with its own Chief Crown Prosecutor.
The CPS undertook more than 800,000 prosecutions in 2012–13, approximately 700,000 of which were in the magistrates’ courts and 100,000 in the Crown Court. The conviction rate was 86 per cent in the magistrates' courts and 80 percent in the Crown Courts.
The Spending Review undertaken by HM Treasury in 2010 (and revised in 2013) has led to a budget decrease of almost 30 per cent between 2010 and 2014, resulting in a restructure of the organisation and a large number of voluntary redundancies. The CPS has implemented measures such as the Core Quality Standards with the intention of maintaining and raising standards.
As of March 2013 the CPS employs more than 6,900 staff, 2,900 solicitors and barristers are on the advocate panel, employed externally or self-employed, who deal with all aspects of criminal casework.
Crown Prosecutors (also known as reviewing lawyers) provide advice to investigators and take charging decisions; Crown Advocates present prosecution cases in court; Associate Prosecutors represent the CPS in cases with guilty pleas in the magistrates’ courts; and paralegals/casework assistants provide clerical support and help with progressing cases.
Self-employed barristers are also paid to represent the prosecution in court in more complicated cases (primarily in the Crown Court and appeal courts) and to provide expert advice when required.
The number of employees prior to the spending review was approximately 9,000.
Headquartered in London and York, the CPS manages the organisation, sets policies and handles corporate matters (such as finance and communications). The Director of Public Prosecutions is assisted by the CPS Chief Executive in running the organisation.
Most of its casework is dealt with by the thirteen CPS Areas, which are responsible for conducting prosecutions in specific parts of England and Wales; each area is led by a Chief Crown Prosecutor. The areas (with their respective police forces) are:
Prior to the spending review, there were forty-two CPS Areas, mirroring the geographical boundaries of the police forces (except for CPS London, which has always dealt with both of the city's police forces).
CPS Direct provides charging advice/authorisation by phone and electronically to police forces at all hours. Most charging decisions by the CPS are now made by CPS Direct, which then passes the prosecution to the appropriate CPS Area.
The Casework Divisions deal with prosecutions requiring specialist knowledge and experience:
The Attorney General oversees the work of the CPS, meeting regularly with the DPP and requesting briefings on matters of public or Parliamentary concern. The Attorney (or the Solicitor General) answer for the CPS’s performance and conduct in Parliament.
However, the Attorney has no role in the day-to-day running of the organisation or in deciding whether a suspect should be prosecuted. The CPS is an independent prosecuting authority and government ministers have no influence over its decision making.
The only exceptions to this rule are when a case involves matters of national security or the Attorney must personally consent to a prosecution (e.g. all Official Secrets Act prosecution require the Attorney’s permission to proceed). Due to the Attorney’s limited role in the CPS’s casework, the use of nolle prosequi (halting of proceedings on indictment; a prerogative of the Attorney General) is now rare. Questionable incidents, such as the dropping of the case against John Bodkin Adams for what was believed to be purely political reasons, have not been repeated in modern times.
The CPS will often provide confidential advice to investigators on the viability of a prosecution in complex or unusual cases. This includes clarifying the intent needed to commit an offence or addressing shortcomings in the available evidence.
Unlike in many other jurisdictions, the CPS has no power to order investigations or direct investigators to take action. Whether the CPS is asked for advice or a charging decision is entirely at the discretion of investigators (see History for background on this division of responsibilities in England & Wales).
The majority of decisions to charge are made by police forces, which have the authority to charge suspects with less serious offences, such as common assault or criminal damage with a low value. The CPS is responsible for taking all other charging decisions – including for serious offences such as murder and rape – and the police cannot charge suspects with these offences without authorisation from a Crown Prosecutor.
The Code for Crown Prosecutors requires prosecutors to answer two questions in the 'Full Code Test': Is there sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction? (in other words, whether a jury more likely than not to convict) and Is a prosecution required in the public interest? These questions must be answered in this order; if there is insufficient evidence, the public interest in prosecuting is irrelevant.
According to the code, if there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, no further action will be taken against the suspect or the prosecutor will ask the police to carry out further inquiries to gather more evidence. When there is sufficient evidence but a prosecution is not required in the public interest, prosecutors can decide that no further action should be taken or that a caution or reprimand is a suitable alternative to prosecution.
In exceptional circumstances, prosecutors can authorise a charge without sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. This is known as the 'Threshold Test'; it is only applied when further evidence is expected to become available soon afterwards (e.g. results of forensic tests) and the suspect is believed to have committed a serious offence and would likely be denied bail by the court if charged. If the expected evidence to support a prosecution does not materialise, the prosecution must be stopped.
Whether a decision to charge is taken by police or prosecutors, the CPS will conduct the case, which includes preparing the case for court hearings, disclosing material to the defence and presenting the case in court. The CPS will be represented in court from the first hearing through to conviction/sentencing, and in some cases appeal.
All prosecutions must be kept under continuous review and stopped if the Full Code Test (see above) is no longer satisfied or was never satisfied (i.e. the decision to charge was wrong). Mishandling of a case, such as failing to disclose evidence, can result in the courts either acquitting a defendant or quashing the conviction on appeal.
When an appeal against conviction or sentence is lodged by a defendant, the CPS will decide whether or not to oppose the appeal after considering the grounds of appeal. If it decides to oppose, it will present relevant evidence and material to assist the appellate court.
Exceptionally, the CPS has invited defendants to appeal when it has concluded that the safety of a conviction was questionable, for example in the case of an undercover police officer Mark Kennedy.
The Extradition Act 2003 tasks the CPS with representing foreign states in extradition proceedings, normally heard at Westminster Magistrates' Court. While it acts on the foreign prosecutor’s instructions, the CPS retains a discretion on how the case should be prosecuted.
The Extradition Unit at CPS Headquarters deals with all cases in which the extradition of a person within England & Wales is sought by another state and all cases in which the CPS is seeking the extradition of an individual outside the European Union. The CPS Areas prepare and manage their own extradition requests under the European Arrest Warrant framework.
These individuals have served as the Director of Public Prosecutions since the CPS was established in 1986: