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A whistle-stop tour of those who make up the criminal justice system

Posted: Friday 11th May 2018
Blog: May

Effective policing relies on local people having confidence in the policing service they receive.  With that we rightly expect police officers to demonstrate the highest levels of integrity in the service they provide. The vast majority of police officers do their job honestly often putting themselves in harm’s way in selfless acts of bravery. However, in cases where an officer may have fallen below these standards, local people have the right to expect the matter will be dealt with thoroughly and fairly.  To ensure this happens, there are a number of independent organisations and people involved and police officers are subject to the same law and go to court to stand trial like everyone else.

The whole of the criminal justice world often seems overly complex and bureaucratic and it is often very hard to understand unless you have experienced it in some form, which luckily many people do not. A decision to arrest someone or not is a decision made by police officers in this country and police alone using their discretion based on experience and training and knowledge of the situation. It is a difficult job, often complex real time situations to deal with; therefore the police can sometimes make mistakes. The Criminal Justice processes after an arrest have a number of checks and balances and independent decision makers, this is much less understood.  What I would like to do is use this as an opportunity to explain to people more about those organisations involved in that process, those who you would encounter and the role they have to play.

So let’s start at the beginning.  When an individual is arrested by the police, in the majority of cases, they can be held for up to 24 hours before they have to be charged with a crime or released.  After being questioned the police may decide to release the person without charge, give them a caution or place them on police bail.  The police may decide not to grant bail meaning the individual has to remain in police custody for a short period of time whilst a decision is made as to whether or not to bring charges. The Constabulary must conduct their investigations thoroughly and expeditiously, in order to establish if there is enough evidence to charge the person.

This decision to charge is made by the Crown Prosecution (CPS) in most cases. In urgent cases and where the offence is not serious, the police can make the decision to charge, however, this decision is reviewed by the CPS quickly afterwards. The police can also decide to issue the person arrested with a formal caution.  In the event of an investigation where questions are raised about the conduct of the Constabulary or individual officers, the investigation and recommendation on charge will be a matter for the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC). 

The IOPC are an independent body who oversee the police complaints system in England and Wales.  They are responsible for investigating the most serious matters that cause the greatest level of public concern, for example, deaths in or following police custody.  They also set the standard by which the police should handle complaints.  Avon and Somerset police will refer the most serious complaints and allegations of misconduct to the IOPC.  The IOPC also publish data for all police forces covering performance, news, reports and investigations: www.policeconduct.gov.uk/tags/avon-and-somerset-constabulary.

Charging decisions for all serious cases are independently made by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).  The CPS prosecutes criminal cases that have been investigated by the police and their duty is to make sure that the right person is prosecuted for the right offence – bringing offenders to justice where possible.  The CPS decides which cases should be prosecuted, determine appropriate charges in more serious or complex cases, prepares cases and presents them at court and provides information, assistance and support to victims.  To charge someone with a criminal offence, prosecutors must be satisfied there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and that prosecuting is in the public interest.

Criminal cases come to court after a decision has been made to prosecute someone for an alleged crime.  The majority of cases will be heard by magistrates who make a decision on guilt or innocence.  For more serious cases a district judge (Magistrate’s court) or a circuit judge (crown court) will hear the evidence.  At a crown court appearance a jury trial will take place.  In very serious criminal cases such as murder and rape, the case may be heard by a High Court Judge.  Both magistrates and judges have the power to imprison those convicted of a crime and although punishment is a key consideration when sentencing, they can also invoke clauses linked to reduced chances of reoffending. Judges of whatever type are independent in their decision making from the investigation (Police, IOPC or other investigating body) or prosecutors (generally CPS).

As well as a criminal process, if it is alleged that an individual police officer has done something wrong there may be a separate misconduct process.  A misconduct process would normally be delayed until any criminal process has been finished – this can take some time.  If it is a serious matter, again the IOPC will carry out the investigation and make a recommendation to the Chief Constable whether the matter is sufficiently serious to merit dismissal (gross misconduct) or not.  Where a matter is set at the level of gross misconduct the Constabulary must convene a hearing which will normally be in public chaired by an independent legally qualified chair and with an independent member that I have appointed.  I am currently recruiting for three new independent persons to sit on misconduct hearings and if you are interested in applying please the job opportunities page on my website.  The panel will then determine whether to dismiss the officer or impose another sanction.

This is just a whistle-stop tour of those who make up the criminal justice system and on misconduct hearings for police officers, but I hope it gives you a better understanding of those who help shape the process. What is important is that people are treated fairly and free from prejudice within the eyes of the law.  And that there are a number of independent decision makers and checks and balances to ensure fairness. Following an arrest all of these agencies must be given the opportunity to do their job.  This can only be done if due process is followed.  As your PCC, I will continue to hold the Constabulary to account, on behalf of local people, to ensure they are operating fairly, with integrity and due diligence.

Finally, yesterday, we were pleased to host the Policing Minister, Nick Hurd MP at Police and Fire Headquarters, Portishead. As well as this being a good opportunity to talk to the minister in-person about the funding issues we raised last year in the Tipping Point report we were also able to show him first-hand the demand faced by police officers within Avon and Somerset. Following funding from the Home Office Transformation bid, Avon and Somerset Police have introduced a new app which mines all the data and statistics within the force and partner public sector organisation to identify and protect vulnerable people at the earliest opportunity, to make our communities safer.

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