Inspectors lay out CPS recruitment and retention difficulties

CPS: Loss of experienced prosecutors 

A quarter of the 180 pupil barristers who joined the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) trainee scheme between 2016 and 2022 left within 12 months of qualifying, a report by Criminal Justice Joint Inspection (CJJI) has found.

The joint inspectors also said a “key barrier” to the reduction of the Crown Court backlog and the high caseloads of CPS prosecutors was lack of capacity at the independent Bar, where “issues around pay and the impact of the pandemic” led to many criminal barristers leaving the profession.

The CJJI – which includes members of the four criminal justice inspectorates, of the CPS, the constabulary, prisons and probation – said: “Recruitment of circuit judges and recorders has also had the effect of reducing numbers of experienced counsel, often those dealing with the more complex cases.

“Lack of suitable counsel to prosecute and defend, particularly in rape and serious sexual offences, has contributed to delays and ineffective trials, adding to the already considerable Crown Court backlog.”

The joint inspectors were concerned that the loss of experienced personnel offered “limited opportunities for new starters to learn from seasoned colleagues”, with many finding themselves “navigating a high-pressure environment without adequate support and supervision”.

In a report on the impact of recruitment and retention on the criminal justice system, the CJJI said a “key ongoing risk” across all four services was “the levels of inexperience”.

While support was in place to induct, mentor and support new staff, this had “added pressure to those with greater levels of experience already dealing with increased pressures or workloads still remaining from the pandemic”.

The CPS looked to “strengthen its legal cadre” by recruiting trainees, apprentices and crown prosecutors “with a view to internal development and promotion” in a difficult employment market.

However, not only did a quarter of pupil barristers leave within a year, which “may result from better advocacy opportunities at the independent Bar”, of all the external new starters who joined the CPS between January 2022 and April 2023, 139 left within 12 months.

More than a quarter of them were legal staff, accounting for around one in 10 of the legal staff who had joined.

The CJJI said recruitment has been difficult in many CPS areas, with “repeated recruitment campaigns” and smaller numbers applying. The CPS had responded by creating a central prosecution team, with prosecutors who could be deployed flexibly.

While there had been “significant recruitment” by the CPS, with a 3% increase in full-time equivalent legal posts in 2022-23, many areas experienced a loss of experienced prosecutors.

“Many senior crown prosecutors moved into other legal roles in leadership and management, legal training and specialist prosecutor roles. The result of this was a reduction in overall experience.”

Recent inspections by the CPS’s own inspectorate revealed that many prosecutors in Crown Court rape and serious sexual offence teams had higher caseloads than before the pandemic, with some Crown Court lawyers having caseloads 50% bigger than before the pandemic.

The CJJI recommended that all criminal justice agencies invest more in understanding why staff left.

“Agencies should use this information to inform future changes to improve recruitment and retention and ensure that the right support and incentives are in place to retain staff.”

Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society, said: “Defence lawyers are leaving the profession in their droves due to decades of underfunding and low legal aid rates. The report recognises that fewer people are choosing a career in criminal law and that both the CPS and defence are an ageing workforce.

“Given that the CPS recruits to a significant degree from the defence community, the lack of lawyers choosing a career in criminal defence is shutting off the pipeline of future prosecutors, to the detriment of the entire criminal justice system.

“Urgent action is needed to incentivise young recruits to go into criminal law by sustainably funding the profession.”

    Readers Comments

  • Former CPS says:

    This will be a surprise to no one. Pupil barristers qualifying with the CPS find themselves unable to do crown court (or other higher court) work, whilst their colleagues at the bar are able to do so immediately. As soon as they leave, they will be able to get on the panel and undertake the same work. It creates no incentive to stay for anyone who wishes to do court advocacy rather than being pushed into becoming a reviewing lawyer and manager.

  • Former CPS Pupil says:

    As a former CPS Pupil Barrister, who left the CPS immediately following the completion of my pupillage, I can explain with ease the key factor causing people to leave.

    Upon qualification, a pupil becomes a “Crown Prosecutor” who may only appear in the magistrates’ court. There is NO ability to appear in the Crown Court unless one becomes a Crown Advocate for which vacancies are few and far between. There is no distinction drawn between barrister and solicitors in the CPS despite the clear and evident desire on barristers to conduct advocacy (a feature not present in all solicitors).

    Pupillage itself is problematic – CPS Pupils are only permitted to conduct very limited hearings in the Crown Court, namely committals for sentence and appeals against the grant of bail. Pupils cannot conduct appeals against sentence or appeals against conviction in the Crown Court, though they can obviously conduct the original hearing in the magistrates’ court.

    I enjoyed my pupillage with the CPS and the employed nature of the role, coupled with the benefits was a big attraction. However, the restriction on work available was the biggest drawback leading me to leave the CPS and enter self-employed practice.

    From experience, retention would be improved if the type of work available to both pupils and Crown Prosecutors increased. A distinction between barristers (who wish to conduct advocacy in the Crown Court) and solicitors who may not be so ambitious would also assist.

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