The Director of Public Prosecutions

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is the national head of service for the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales, appointed by and responsible to the Attorney General. The current DPP is Keir Starmer QC (2008-), the fourteenth lawyer to hold the position.  

The historical role

The office was created by the Prosecution of Offences Act 1979 with the first DPP, Sir John Maule, being appointed in 1880 by the Home Secretary. Both the second and third directors, Sir Augustus Stephenson QC (1884-1894) and Lord Desart QC (1894 – 1908) also held the position of Treasury Solicitor. Until 1986, the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions was to handle responsibility of a few important cases with the rest left to the police.

List of DPPs since 1880

  1. Sir John Maule QC (1880-1884)

  2. Sir Augustus Stephenson QC (1884-1894)

  3. Lord Desart QC (1894-1908)

  4. Sir Charles Willie Matthews QC (1908-1920)

  5. Sir Archibald Bodkin QC (1920-1930)

  6. Sir Edward Tindal Atkinson QC (1930-1944)

  7. Sir Theobald Mathew KCB MC QC (1944-1964)

  8. Sir Norman Skelhorn QC (1964-1977)

  9. Sir Thomas Hetherington QC (1977-1987; first head of CPS)

  10. Sir Allan Green QC (1987-1992)

  11. Dame Barbara Mills DBE QC (1992-1998)

  12. Sir David Calvert-Smith QC (1998-2003)

  13. Sir Ken Macdonald QC (2003-2008)

  14. Keir Starmer QC (2008-)

The Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was formed in 1986 after a Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure in 1981. It was given the task of making decisions on whether or not to prosecute, and on what charges, based on the evidence gathered by the police. Until 2003, though, the CPS only advised the police whether to begin a prosecution. Only during this year was it given the authority to make and carry through the decision.

The aim was that the prosecuting authority should be one other than the people who investigated the crime and thus came with a particular view or it. The creation of a new independent body to deal with just this was thought to better serve the public interest and the interests of justice.

Sir Thomas Hetherington QC was the first head of the Crown Prosecution Service, which is now made up of around 2000 solicitors and barristers. Since 1999 the service has been spread around forty-two prosecution areas, each of which headed by a Chief Crown Prosecutor.

The decision to prosecute

The CPS is allowed a great deal of discretion. For instance, it is under no obligation to prosecute whenever a crime has been committed. Put simply, there is not the money, staff nor facilities to prosecute all offenders and so this is never a realistic aim.

In order to prosecute, the DPP or his crown prosecutors must recognise a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’. This amounts to a better chance of conviction than acquittal so they may choose not to prosecute if they deem that there is not enough evidence to get a conviction.

Other reasons for choosing not to prosecute include if the offence was committed a long time in the past, if the defendant is very old or critically ill or if the defendant is low down in a criminal operation for which the ringleaders have escaped prosecution.

Decisions above the DPP’s jurisdiction

For terrorism offences, those under the Official Secrets Act and other examples of serious crime, the decision to prosecute falls to the Attorney General. The CPS must consult the Attorney General on cases that involve national sensitivity or notoriety and also accept his power to stop prosecutions that have already begun.