The Labour Party has called for the role of associate prosecutors (APs) to be expanded so as to help reduce the massive backlog in criminal cases awaiting hearings.
Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry told The Guardian APs were “not being used to the maximum extent possible” in Crown Courts due to an “unnecessary and outdated legal restriction”.
APs are specially trained lay employees of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), with level 1 APs permitted by law to conduct uncontested cases in the magistrates’ courts, and level 2 APs able to conduct specified contested hearings, up to and including trials of summary-only non-imprisonable offences.
Labour said APs had years of experience and were already at an advanced stage in their careers but were forced to pursue costly and time-consuming retraining as generalist lawyers in order to become Crown prosecutors.
Lifting restrictions on the 127 APs employed by the CPS would represent an increase of those able to handle the workload currently reserved for Crown prosecutors by up to two-thirds, Labour said.
Ms Thornberry said: “With the epidemic of violent crime, fraud and antisocial behaviour plaguing our communities, the government should be exploring every practical option that would help to tackle the backlogs across our court system and get the wheels of justice turning more rapidly again.”
Labour would “immediately remove that restriction and allow those staff to apply for Crown prosecutor positions”, she said.
APs have been members of and regulated by CILEX, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, since 2009 – soon after their extended role was first established – and in 2011 it was given the power to grant them litigation and advocacy rights.
Their training and assessment are delivered by the CPS and monitored by CILEX Regulation.
Both current Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab and his predecessor, Sir Robert Buckland – who is tipped to resume the role if Liz Truss becomes prime minister – have previously committed to working with CILEX to open up Crown prosecutor roles to APs.
Professor Chris Bones, the chair of CILEX, welcomed Labour’s announcement. He said: “The current restrictions on the career progression of many associate prosecutors limit the contribution they can make to clearing the court case backlog and stifles the pipeline of talent that is required by the CPS to meet the demands of the criminal justice system over the long term.
“Importantly, this change would speed up access to justice for those who are currently stuck in the courts system for years.”
Stephen Davies, a solicitor at leading criminal defence firm Tuckers and a prominent commentator on social media, wrote on Twitter that the number of APs meant that such a change would have little impact given the scale of the problem, with 344,000 cases outstanding in the magistrates’ courts.