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The CPS – what is it really like…?

17 May 2012 

On the official website of the CPS you will see the words:

“The CPS is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales”

That’s a very bland statement of what the CPS does – but as an ex-Senior Crown Prosecutor with over 20 years’ experience in the CPS, I can say that there was much more to the job than that simple outline.

I received my practising certificate on the 1st October 1986 – which was the day that the CPS officially came into being. It may be difficult to grasp now but we had no computers to assist with the admin work – court decisions were updated by means of tediously writing out notes on card indexes and there were no mobile phones to make a quick call back to the office from court to check that the decision you were about to make was the right one… you were on your own!

Nowadays the CPS like every other arm of the criminal justice system, is heavily dependent on IT and the move is being made to a totally “paperless” system where prosecutors are supplied with tablets in court. From what I have read the jury is still out on this one…

But in other respects there are aspects of the work that have not changed at all – the variety, the stresses and also excitement of appearing in court and the occasional reward - which did not necessarily involve getting a conviction every time but did involve knowing that you had done what was required of you and done it to the best of your ability.

The CPS is currently advertising trainee positions in various locations. My advice to anyone thinking of applying for one of these is to consider carefully whether or not you possess the attributes needed to make a successful prosecutor.

I would say that the first of these is stamina – court hearings can be long and even when you have finished for the day there may well be the next day’s cases to absorb before you can leave the office. Cases can also be emotionally draining as well as intellectually taxing, particularly if they involve vulnerable witnesses and victims. On at least two occasions I had to spend time with frightened and initially reluctant witnesses where I had to gauge whether the importance of continuing with the court case outweighed the distress that might be caused to the witness. We did go ahead on both occasions and fortunately obtained convictions in both cases.

You will also need a sense of humour – which might sound odd but I found it a vital element in my work. Files can be mislaid, statements go missing and cases may not go the way you want all the time. The ability to deal with mishaps whilst not regarding them as World War Three is essential if you are not to feel overwhelmed by the pressure. Talking to some retired magistrates in York recently I was astonished to find that they too had found certain aspects of the cases we had dealt with amusing – and had sometimes had difficulty in keeping a straight face until they got to the retiring room. I had always regarded magistrates as extremely serious individuals - and they had always thought the same of prosecutors…

And the ability to adapt very quickly is vital. In court the unexpected can happen (and frequently did to me…). Magistrates may make a bizarre (to your mind) decision involving bail - are you going to appeal it? Your principal witness changes their account on the morning of trial – how will you deal with that? Making decisions under pressure whilst recognising that what you decide will affect victims, witnesses and the police view of your abilities was not always easy.

Which brings me to one of the most enjoyable aspects of my time with the CPS - the genuine friendships made with fellow prosecutors, defence solicitors , court staff and last but not least the police. I am still in touch with officers I met during my first court trial in 1986. Above all, you have to get on with people from all walks of life – learning how to deal with a terrified, unrepresented defendant as well as a Crown Court judge in chambers was a very steep learning curve for me albeit a very necessary one.

So the picture behind the statement on the website is one of variety, stress, occasional hiccups, a great deal of pressure, the occasional high point and for me, a very rewarding experience. The great strength of the CPS lies in its personnel – if you become one of them I hope that you will one day look back on it with as much enjoyment as I now do.

Angela Smith, former Senior Crown Prosecutor and current Careers Team Manager at The College of Law, York


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