Monday, 09 May 2016

The People’s Champion: Training at the Crown Prosecution Service

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The People’s Champion: Training at the Crown Prosecution Service

If you’re passionate about criminal law and delivering justice, joining the Crown Prosecution Service could be the career for you. Kate Durcan dropped by the CPS’s London HQ to cross-examine the recruitment team and current trainees on what it takes to be a prosecutor.

Walking across London’s Southwark Bridge en route to the Crown Prosecution Service, the view is a showstopper: a gleaming Shard towers to the left, the mock-Tudor of The Globe Theatre protrudes on the right, and straight ahead is a glass-walled building housing the Financial Times. If you enjoy the buzz of central London, you couldn’t find a better location to work.

But stepping inside Rose Court, home of the CPS, the glamour of the neighbourhood comes to an abrupt halt. The foyer is gloomy, sparse and cramped, typical of government buildings which cannot be seen to spend taxpayers’ money on ostentatious offices. It’s a world away from the art-adorned reception areas of City law firms, but just as busy as visitors arrive, are handed security badges and whisked upstairs in quick succession.

The CPS is the government department responsible for prosecuting criminal offences in England and Wales and employs barristers and solicitors, as well as caseworkers and administrators. It has around 2,255 prosecutors spread throughout 13 locations nationally, and each area is headed by a Chief Crown Prosecutor (CCP). The entire CPS is led by the Director of Public Prosecutions (the DPP), currently Alison Saunders, who is answerable to the Attorney General, a government minister.

The role of CPS prosecutor ranges from advising the police on the merits of charging a suspect, through to handling the advocacy at trial. Because solicitors have rights of audience in the Magistrates Court, the forum where all criminal cases commence regardless of severity, that advocacy can be conducted by solicitors as well as barristers - ideal if you want to be a solicitor but also enjoy being on your feet.

Martin McKay-Smith, CPS training principal and head of legal development, arrives promptly and leads the way upstairs to a meeting room, where the opaque glass serves as an immediate reminder of the seriousness of the legal matters handled here and the need for privacy.

Public service

‘I haven’t lost the excitement of the job after n years’, says Martin, who has been a part of the CPS, both as a prosecutor and latterly, a member of the leadership and development team for such time that he won’t reveal how long, exactly. ‘People like the idea of representing the Crown in the criminal courts. That’s why I came into it. I’m not doing that every day now, obviously, I’m doing another part of the job, but there is still that enthusiasm to do the right thing. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true: people want to come here to deal with victims and witnesses and to provide a good service to the public, independently of the police. That is the ethos, and I think it is a real one.’

When Lex visits, the organisation is in the midst of its recruitment campaign for pupillage and training contracts, collectively known as its Legal Trainee Scheme, to commence in November 2016. It has 25 places available to candidates who have already completed, or are about to complete, their Legal Practice Course (solicitors) or Bar Professional Training Course (barristers) and there is no pre-determined allocation of how the 25 vacancies will be split between trainee solicitors and pupil barristers: ‘We don’t recruit half-and-half’, Martin explains, ‘what we do is recruit on merit. Obviously, while we would very much like to have a balance, we can’t guarantee that.’ He reveals that recent recruitment campaigns – which are usually annual, but always at the discretion of the DPP – have resulted in more pupil barristers winning places than trainee solicitors, ‘not for any reason I can nail down at the moment, although I would very much like to know why that is happening,’ he says.

At a glance

Vacancies: 25 (2016)
Location: any one of the 13 CPS locations across England & Wales. Recruitment is based on geographical need, so trainees must be prepared to relocate if necessary. 
Trainee salary: £23,276 - £27,296, depending on location
Crown prosecutor starting salary: £31,992 - £36,704, depending on location
Application deadline (2016 intake): midnight 12th May 2016. 
How to apply: visit

One reason may be the vigorous nature of the recruitment process, which, as one would expect, is weighted towards presentation skills, which perhaps comes more naturally to the aspiring barrister than solicitor advocate. Martin argues that anyone who has gone through a degree and law school should already have the necessary skills required to handle the case studies and presentations demanded of the application process.

With the legal profession under fire for its lack of social mobility, the CPS appears to be compounding this with no financial help towards law school or bar school fees to external candidates, who are expected to have already completed their courses when they apply. Martin admits this is something his team is examining: ‘It’s a fair point. I think discussions will go on about that, and of course, there is the possibility of legal apprenticeships now, which we will certainly be looking at actively.’

The service does already offer a paralegal apprenticeship, which leads to externally-recognised qualifications, and will assist existing non-legal staff who wish to become lawyers by sponsoring their LPC or BPTC. This was the route taken by current trainee solicitor Fiona Whillis (see box), who spent a number of years as a CPS caseworker before deciding to train as a prosecutor. She says, ‘I didn’t have very good career advice when I was at school. I would have loved to have studied law but I didn’t realise that I was capable. Being at the CPS has given me a fantastic opportunity.’

The Trainee Solicitor

Name: Fiona Whillis
University: St Mary’s, Twickenham
Degree: English
GDL/LPC: London Metropolitan University

Fiona had a less conventional route to her training contract, having worked at the CPS for 13 years as a caseworker before being sponsored to undertake the GDL and LPC. She will qualify as a solicitor in November.

Being part of the organisation for a long time has done little to dilute her passion for the job: ‘I’ve been here for years and I really know what it’s about. I really believe in it and what we do – it’s about the victims; we should be there for the victims and people should be prosecuted for what they have done.’

Fiona has worked on cases of murder, rape and domestic violence, to name a few, while one stand-out matter concerned historical child sexual abuse, where the defendant received a 20-year sentence. ‘When we saw the victims, how destroyed they were, how he destroyed their lives and then put them through a trial as well, it was so satisfying that they were believed and he got 20 years,’ she recalls.

An essential part of the CPS solicitors’ training scheme are external secondment seats to satisfy the rules of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Fiona spent six months in a family seat at law firm Ronald Fletcher Baker, as well as a seat at schools’ regulator, Ofsted, where she experienced education and regulatory law.

Experts in crime

It is rather refreshing that the CPS recruits just months before training commences, unlike the majority of large law firms, mainly commercial, that recruit years in advance, when you barely know your way around the law library, let alone the area of legal practice you want to dedicate your life to. But is the CPS for you?

‘People are encouraged to come to us because of their love of, or interest in, criminal law and all that it involves,’ Martin enthuses, ‘and it is exciting because there are so many different aspects to it.’ For example, in addition to the everyday criminal cases handled throughout the country, the CPS has three national casework divisions: specialist fraud, special crime and counter terrorism, and organised crime. You could be dealing with a shop-lifting offence one day or be part of RASSO – Rape and Serious Sexual Offences – the next. ‘It is hard work,’ admits trainee Fiona, ‘but it depends what you want. I really care about the kind of cases I’ve done, such as rape and homicide, and about bringing offenders to justice. There is never a dull moment.’

If criminal work is for you, the CPS offers greater career structure and job security than many private practice criminal defence firms. Martin explains: ‘The criminal defence side is quite poorly served at the moment and is very much in a state of flux. Defence firms do not know exactly how many people they might need because the funding tap, legal aid, is very much under scrutiny. Recently, we have recruited qualified solicitors and barristers, some of whom have been doing defence work for 20 years, and what that tells me is that it is difficult to find a role in the defence field at the moment. The work is contracting because more people are trying to defend themselves because they do not have legal aid. We are the experts in criminal law and we have got more people doing it than any other organisation.’

He demonstrates the CPS’ online Prosecuting College, which includes a Pupil Resource Pack and Solicitor Resource Pack, and is essentially a week-by-week, month-by-month training schedule for staff to refer to throughout their career to ensure career progression. The training resources are something that pupil barrister Sophie Staunton (see box) believes sets the CPS training apart from the independent bar: ‘What is really good about the CPS, which I really appreciate now that I am in my second sixth, is the resources here,’ she says. ‘You don’t have access to resources like this out there in chambers.’

The pupil

Name: Sophie Staunton
University: Oxford (St Anne’s College)
Degree: Law 
BPTC: The City Law School

Sophie came straight into the CPS from Bar school and is halfway through her pupillage, having completed a short secondment at criminal set 23 Essex Street, where she experienced defence as well as prosecution work. Despite several offers from various chambers, she chose the CPS for its career stability and generous pupillage award - £27,000 in London compared to around £12,000 at the independent Bar - as well as the training support and interesting work.

‘I’ve always had an interest in human rights, particularly women’s rights, so working in RASSO (see above) has been a highlight so far, really rewarding,’ she says. ‘Every decision you make, it’s someone’s life.’ Does she ever fear that decision could one day lead to a miscarriage of justice? ‘I don’t worry, no, because we have the Code for Crown Prosecutors, which you use for everything you do. If there is not the evidence, then you don’t proceed with it. In defence work, you might have to proceed with a case that you don’t believe in because there is pressure to continue.’

Sophie is currently based in the Special Casework Unit, where her supervisor is a reviewing lawyer. ‘I get to look at his cases and do a review as he would do it and he gives me feedback. A lot of my work gets sent to the police, which is really great.’

There are downsides, of course. The salary will never be the main draw, though at trainee rates of £23,276 (national) and £24,296 plus £3,000 recruitment and retention allowance (London), and qualified crown prosecutor salaries of £31,992 - £33,704 plus London allowance, the pay is actually decent for the criminal law sector, particularly at the junior end. It is important to appreciate you will only ever prosecute at the CPS, whereas a criminal barrister in chambers is likely to both prosecute and defend. And there are currently few opportunities for crown court advocates, which pupil Sophie points out is something that many trainee barristers do not realise when they apply for a CPS pupillage. Due to funding cuts, the number of Crown Advocates at the CPS have been scaled right back, with the self-employed Bar more typically used to prosecute in the crown court.
‘The whole reason you want to be a barrister is to do crown court advocacy,’ reveals Sophie, ‘but there are no opportunities for that at the moment. I’ve had the best pupillage imaginable, but I think you should come in knowing about that.’

Whether you’re an aspiring barrister or solicitor, the CPS offers a range of opportunities unrivalled elsewhere.

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 November 2017 14:46