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So today I say goodbye to the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee after 8 years as one of the 2 solicitor representatives.
There are some (even in my office) who are not always that complimentary about this committee and the effect it has had on the Criminal Justice System.
Let me give you an example.
A couple of years ago, one of my partners marched into my office, waving a form around, exclaiming “this is your fault!” He had been asked by the clerk in the Magistrates Court to explain at a first appearance, where the defendant appeared charged with murder having been extradited (without interview) to explain what the relevant issues were...
That said, my experience has been positive, and an education. The Committee is made up of nearly all of the major stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System: the judiciary from all the courts that deal with criminal matters, the police, the Crown, court clerks, defence and many more.
The committee is charged with making the rules that govern criminal procedure and implementing new legislation, even when the members unanimously oppose it. A very relevant and current example is the ongoing debacle concerning the procedures brought in following the changes to bail time limits. All the stakeholders sitting round the table were opposed to these proposals, stating that they believed such changes would not cure the ills complained of (i.e. suspects left on bail for long periods), but in fact make the situation much worse.
This has turned out to be entirely correct. Over the years the Committee has tussled with some of the major challenges in our system, largely brought about through decreasing resources. For example, problems with disclosure have featured on many occasions, and the committee has considered sympathetically concerns raised by the defence and practitioner groups. Indeed, sub groups have been set up to focus specifically on these challenges. Other current hot topics include intermediaries and delegated powers of court officers.
I have sat on a number of committees in a representative capacity over the years and at times the experience has been frustrating. It has been difficult to convey the coalface experience of practitioners and the reality of what happens in court. This has not been the case with the CPR Committee. It is made up of people who have themselves significant experience of the system (and its failings), but who are also willing to take on board the practical experiences of the stakeholders around the table. In short, they are willing to listen and, where possible, to act. This extends to other organisations and individuals who raise relevant issues with the Committee.
Whilst there is often vigorous and amicable debate, a fair hearing is always guaranteed. Which is a good thing, because with the make-up of the committee you are effectively appearing before a magistrate, Crown Court judge and a fully constituted court of appeal all at the same time, so there is nowhere to go for an appeal.
Sometimes it does feel like we are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. And I do occasionally wonder whether a Criminal Justice system running properly and in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Rules and Practice Direction is a parallel universe. However, despite all of its challenges, there exists within the CPR Committee a common motive to preserve a fair system, and it gives practitioners an invaluable opportunity to influence changes and convey the reality of “Criminal Justice in action.”