Posts Tagged 'Crown Prosecution Service'

Tommy, can you hear me?

I’ve written about the Proceeds of Crime Act before (oh yes I have, see here) and as it enables us to strip the bad guys of their ill-gotten white tigers, it’s definitely one of my top five Acts.

The above video illustrates why the powers afforded to us by ‘POCA’ can be so pleasing to use as they let us confiscate large amounts of cash on the spot and apply to the courts to strip criminal assets too.

Rather than being a gangster ducking and diving amongst foggy London Town’s docklands back in the 50s as his name suggests, Tommy Scragg was actually a conman living in leafy Solihull who was convicted of a multi-million pound tax fraud last year.

Officers looking into the fraud noticed Scragg was living way beyond his means and so have been able to get the court’s permission to sell off his stuff to help raise money for local community projects.

If you like the idea of criminals rightly losing all of their assets to the auctioneer’s hammer then it’s worth remembering that many successful seizures take place in the first place because members of the public have let us know something isn’t right about the finances of someone in their area.

Should you live next to someone with no identifiable source of income to explain the Fabergé egg collection you can see in their window then please give us a call, you never know how helpful your information might be!

You can call us on 101 or alternatively, give your information anonymously via Crimestoppers and let us know your suspicions.

Young ones shouldn’t be afraid…

The court system may not always provide the best fit for young witnesses, what provisions does the law give to make the process of giving evidence easier?

The story today about the disparaging comments apparently made by a CPS barrister regarding a young sexual abuse victim has raised concerns from charities and pressure groups about the way cases involving young people are dealt with by the courts.

At the best of times the courts are not the most friendly places, a trial can be a frightening process and uncomfortable too.

To provide a fair trial, the evidence forming the case has to be tested and when it comes to witnesses, the way this is done will be by cross examination with attempts made to find weaknesses in the credibility and reliability of those testifying.

For adults alone, this challenging of their evidence and of their character may be a stressful experience.

Even for police officers experienced in the court process and the giving of evidence, stepping into ‘the box’ is not something to look forward to.

For children then, it’s understandable that the prospect of a criminal trial would cause some real fear.

This isn’t only an issue leading up to a trial, concerns about participation in the judicial system may well put someone off approaching the police in the first place, the preference being to let things be rather than risk having to go to court.

To make things easier for young and vulnerable victims, the law provides a number of ‘special measures‘ designed to make people feel more at ease with the trial system.

Rather than asking young people to stand up in court to give their account, the law presumes that all young people will have their evidence videoed and this video be played at court.

Furthermore, there is an assumption that at court, young people will qualify for special arrangements designed to make the giving of evidence a less daunting experience.

One possibility is using a video link so that they don’t have to face the accused, another is in-court screens for the same purpose.

Further options include asking the court staff to remove their wigs and gowns to make the trial feel a little less formal, also clearing the court so that there is less of an audience to speak in front of.

Special measures are designed to make the trial process seem a little less hostile, to help bolster the confidence of those giving evidence.

Despite the measures though, a great deal of courage is still required hence acting as a witness is a respectable, commendable thing to do.

On the whole, the courts do well in encouraging such confidence – stories such as today’s don’t help but at the same time, aren’t representative of the system as a whole.

Everybody’s talking at me…

Trolling is one of the worst examples of internet misuse, is police investigation the solution considering the vast scale of the problem though?

As an officer heavily invested in social media as a valuable tool for helping promote the openness of the police, I’m often approached for advice on how best to proceed when we get allegations involving the misuse of sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

It’s a topic that I touch on from time to time on this blog too, relating to how we use social media and the best ways to tackle issues arising from its misuse.

Last August I’d written about proportionate ways to respond to online trolling and harassment, the summary being that in many cases the proportionate course of action may well be to block the offending accounts and make a report to site admins.

Looking at the issues raised this week by the offensive tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy, the same problems around launching police action resurface.

Traditional police action taken to look into every instance – described as “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours” – would conceivably necessitate an investigation on a truly vast scale.

There’d likely be hundreds of individual offenders to question spread across the whole of the country, each needing identification, arrest and interview.

Stemming from these enquiries, there’d be hundreds of computers to seize, thousands of hours spent preparing court files and a similar knock on effect felt the whole way down the justice system.

The resources involved for such an investigation would be massive, far beyond anything that police budgets could reasonably sustain with officers taken away from other duties accordingly.

This, baring in mind, is for one case and a case that sadly is not unique – the complaint and associated workload ought be repeated thousands of times by other users of social media experiencing similar issues.

Looking from this point of view at what is a very serious, distressing experience for those suffering trolling, the solution I don’t think can lie with the police alone.

Such huge criminal investigations are neither proportionate or sustainable in relation to the scale of the problem faced.

Rather, the problems needs to be tackled at source and that starts with the sites themselves.

Offending accounts need to be blocked but to prevent further issues, there’s a requirement for sites to offer a genuinely effective abuse reporting function and take steps to ensure that the upsetting example highlighted by Ms Criado-Perez is not a regular occurrence.

Options to flag trolling accounts in an easy, responsive way are a requirement and it’s the site creators that need to arrange this.

Sites such as Twitter and Facebook are the gatekeepers and need to take responsibility as such, the police can’t be left to do the job for them.

Nobody told me there’d be days like this…

Disclosure schemes are being trialled allowing applicants to check their partner’s past for violence, how might they help address the issue of domestic abuse?

This week in the news there have been calls to expand a pilot of a scheme under which applicants could be given advanced warning of their partner’s violent past.

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, otherwise known as Clare’s Law’, allows concerned parties to approach the police and request information about someone’s criminal record should they be concerned about violence becoming an issue.

So far trialled in four forces including Greater Manchester, Clare’s Law operates in a very similar way to Sarah’s Law, the scheme under which members of the public can make similar applications for information in relation to a child they feel may be at risk of sexual abuse.

Whilst Clare’s Law has yet to progress beyond the pilot stage, several disclosures have been made by forces in cases where they’ve thought there is relevant information the applicant ought to know.

I guess you could liken such schemes to the criminal record background checks made by employers when they’re looking to recruit for sensitive jobs – the advantages and disadvantages are similar too.

A principle disadvantage is that a clean record doesn’t necessarily give grounds for trust, it could be that someone has a violent past but simply not been caught.

A lack of anything on records could give a false sense of security and similarly, would disclosures simply be of court convictions or would they go into deeper detail about cases in which charges couldn’t be brought?

Different impressions may be given depending on what information is disclosed and how it is interpreted, what happens with the information likewise may cause concern should it be passed to third parties.

More positively though, giving past offending history to potential victims may put them into a much better position to appreciate the risk they could be in and to take action accordingly.

Armed with the knowledge early on, I imagine there would be a better opportunity to leave a relationship than would be available at a later point where the abuse has gradually increased to a point where the victim feels trapped.

It’s a peculiar barrier holding information on our systems but not being allowed to warn someone that they may be at risk of serious harm, a mechanism such as Clare’s Law would be useful to help overcome this.

In helping provide said warning to potential victims, Clare’s Law could be a useful tool in our toolbox.

What it isn’t though is a standalone solution – it’s a combination of tools that’ll help us tackle the problem effectively.

Life Thru A Lens…

Continuing along the same technology theme as my last blog on modernising the courts, I noticed today this story over on TechRadar about a chap who whilst wearing a yet-to-be fashionable pair of Google Glasses happened to record a fight and arrest happening right in front of him.

If you’re unfamiliar with Google Glass, Google have basically invented the glasses worn by Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ so that us non-space travellers can use them.

If that still doesn’t clear things up, they’re fancy geek specs with a camera attached.

Whilst his above video doesn’t show anything particularly interesting, that the footage was captured in the first place illustrates the proliferation of personal recording devices and suggests how useful the availability of their footage could be to police.

Every year since some bright spark decided to glue a camera to a mobile phone, more and more people have been able to capture photos and videos of things happening on the spot.

This can be a valuable source of evidence and is an entirely new capability put into the hands of the public who can now capture the aftermath of a tube bombing just as easily as they can grab a snap of JLS walking down the street.

I’ve dealt with several cases now in which video evidence from a mobile phone showing an offence has formed an important part of the case and in my experience, it can be very useful indeed as the evidence can be so strong.

Witness statements are good for an initial account but their details can be challenged – it’s far harder for a suspect to deny an offence if they’re clearly on camera up to no good.

As such it’s likely cases can be progressed more efficiently with fewer ‘not guilty’ pleas and more full and frank admissions.

This means less officer time spent sorting out ID parades, completing court files and the other things that they might have to do should a suspect decide to challenge the case.

Requests for mobile footage often now form a part of our witness appeals and whilst forces have yet to develop a portal allowing the public to submit footage to us online, I’m sure this is something that will be looked at as it’d be very handy.*

There’s no reason that the collection of personally recorded images should be restricted to the public though, indeed forces including my own have already been trialling body-worn cameras.

Hampshire Constabulary have issued them to all of their response officers, the collected footage being presented to court and also helping to reduce complaints against officers.

Again, it’s the quality of the evidence collected that would be hugely beneficial and when used openly and responsibly, I can see very few disadvantages to their use.

It’s likely to be a few years before you see officers walking around looking like cyborgs, for the reasons outlined above though personally collected footage will feature in cases increasingly frequently as a very helpful source of evidence.

* Whilst I’m not aware of a dedicated online portal being used by any forces at the moment, the Facewatch site that has featured on this blog before could almost certainly be adapted for the purpose.

Paper romance…

With quantum computing just round the corner and communications satellites enabling us to stream funny cat videos to our smart phones whether we’re on the bus or at the top of Everest, you may be forgiven for assuming that our courts would have kept pace with technological advances.

As paperless offices were all the buzz at least ten years ago and Wi-Fi now pretty much a basic human right, surely the people dealing out justice to the futuristic spandex-wearing citizens of 2013 would be up to speed on computers?

Unfortunately not.

Enter a court room and not only will you see folk running around with funny wigs on, you’ll also see on every available surface big thick paper files that have to be carted in and out of the court by grumbling legal understudies with back problems.

Stack up all the 160,000,000 bits of environmentally hostile paper used by the justice system each year and the resulting pile would be fifteen times higher than Snowdon. That’s a lot of paper.

It’s not only a reliance on paper that is a little out of place in our futuristic times, it’s also that the most is not being made of the technologies that’d make everybody’s life much easier and save time as a result.

Examples include available Wi-Fi in court rooms so files can be shared electronically and better use made of electronic displays eliminating the need for folk to run around with multiple VHS tapes whenever CCTV evidence needs to be displayed.

It’s in response to concerns such as these that the Ministry of Justice has launched the ‘Transforming the Criminal Justice System‘ initiative under which it aims to have a digital court system up and running by 2016.

At £160 million it’s not cheap, the savings in terms of everyone’s time and the associated reduction in costs that would follow though I think mean this is an investment that would likely pay for itself.

Amongst other areas, the money is proposed to be spent on:

  • Installing secure Wi-Fi in most courts so that all necessary files are available at the touch of a button.
  • Digital Evidence Screens so that documents can be displayed without the need for paper copies
  • Court Presentation Software allowing legal folk to easily navigate complicated court files

These are set against a wider range of proposals under the initiative to help improve the efficiency of the court system including adapting to digital systems now used by police and providing electronic portals on which victims can track the progress of their cases.

Last year in the West Midlands we switched to paperless first hearing files which saved a huge amount of the time that we would previously have spent sitting in funny paperwork nests after charging someone.

Rather than printing out case summaries, witness lists, statements and everything else we instead had the option simply to complete the file online and hit the send button to transfer it to the court.

The time this saved – hundreds of thousands of hours – can then be spent back out on the streets where we belong, shining torches down alleys and blowing our whistles at traffic.

Part of the proposals are that the majority of officers will provide evidence via video link – again this is something already trialled in the West Midlands and has drastically reduced the amount of time wasted by officers who are called to court, spend a morning twiddling thumbs in the witness room before being told they’re not required.

As an estimate, some four and a half million officer hours could be freed should the proposals be implemented in all forces which is a good thing for everyone other than criminals.

I’m a big fan of proposals that result in criminals losing out and as I’d rather not spend any more time than I have to ‘file building’ in the office, I’ll be following the implementation of the Transforming the Criminal Justice System initiative with great interest.

There’s so much you have to know…

What am I going on about when I talk about getting some ‘CPS advice’?

As I mentioned on me Twitter feed earlier today, this shift I had to give the Crown Prosecution Service a call to get some advice in relation to a prisoner I’d been dealing with.

This is something we have to do fairly frequently on the Investigation Team, what does ‘going to CPS’ involve though and why do we have to do it? For that matter, who are the CPS anyway?

First things first, the Crown Prosecution Service is the department responsible for prosecuting the criminal cases that we police officers present to them as a result of our investigations.

They give advice on the cases that we’re putting together, make sure cases are in a suitable condition to be put to the courts and it’s the CPS lawyers who present said cases to the court itself.

As a condition of their employment, all Crown Prosecution Service employees have to wear crowns whenever on duty as a sign of their legal authority.*

The CPS has been operating ever since 1986, prior to this date police forces would prosecute their own cases.

When it comes to ‘going to CPS’, whether we have to do so or not depends on the type of cases that we’re working on.

For simpler jobs, such as a minor assault or low value criminal damage, we police can make the decision about whether there’s enough evidence to take a matter to court and so don’t need to consult with CPS beforehand.

More serious offences, or anything involving a domestic or hate crime element, usually require us to ask CPS to have a look at the circumstances of the report and the available evidence as only CPS can authorise us to charge someone with said offence.

So, we police are allowed to decide to charge people with low level offences whilst CPS have to check serious crime cases before they’re able to go to court, what does the process itself involve?

Like with many other areas, each force will have different procedures but in the West Midlands, we have a program called Electronic File Build (Battlefield 4, eat your heart out!) which links in with our own custody computers.

When we need advice, or in any case if we’re charging someone to go to court, we can upload much of our evidence electronically to the File Build program and then zap it straight across to CPS.

This means CPS get an outline of the case along with copies of statements, exhibits and the like within minutes of us sending them and then can reply to us in the same fashion.

Prior to using this electronic system, we used to fax paper documents (children of the 1990s, see here) or if the fax machine wasn’t working, even read out whole statements over the phone which you can appreciate took a lot of our time so the electronic system is much more efficient.

Once the documents are sent, we’ll then pick up the phone and speak to a CPS lawyer at one of their call centres who may ask a few questions about the case and then will give us a decision.

If you hear in the news that police have ‘submitted a file to CPS’, this is usually what is meant, although the exact mechanism varies and for complicated cases officers will meet with CPS representatives in person to discuss the evidence.

Having CPS oversight is useful as particularly in serious cases, the law can be very complicated hence why it is necessary for a legal professional to review the case to ensure that we have the best chance of getting a conviction in court.

So there’s the process of how and why we have to get CPS advice in as simpler terms as I think I can manage.

If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can take a look at the Director’s Guidance on Charging but if not, simply take away that CPS are the legal experts who work with us to help ensure the cases we investigate arrive at the best possible result.

* Okay, this bit may not be true although what the CPS lawyers wear whilst working in their call centres is a matter for themselves!

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