The Director of Public Prosecutions

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is the head of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales. The DPP is appointed by and responsible to the Attorney General but is independent of Government. The current DPP is Max Hill QC who took up the post in November 2018.

What’s the historical background?

The office of DPP was created by the Prosecution of Offences Act 1979. The first DPP was Sir John Maule who was appointed in 1880 by the then Home Secretary. Until 1986, the DPP’s role was to prosecute the most serious or important cases, with the rest dealt with by the police. Since then, its role has been widened and now prosecutes most criminal cases.

The DPP office holders through the last three decades (before Max Hill) were:

  • Dame Barbara Mills DBE QC (1992-1998)
  • Sir David Calvert-Smith QC (1998-2003)
  • Sir Ken Macdonald QC (2003-2008)
  • Keir Starmer QC (2008-2013)
  • Alison Saunders (2013–2018)

What is the Crown Prosecution Service?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is independent of the government and the police, and prosecutes most criminal cases in England and Wales. These cases will have been investigated by the police and/or other investigative agencies before being referred to the CPS. It then decides which cases should be prosecuted.

The CPS has 14 regional teams, each headed up by a chief crown prosecutor, which prosecute cases locally in those regions. They work closely with local police forces and other criminal justice partners. 

How does the CPS decide to prosecute?

The CPS is allowed a great deal of discretion when considering whether to prosecute, and it is under no obligation to prosecute whenever a crime has been committed. Without sufficient resources or facilities, it is simply not realistic to prosecute all offenders.

For the CPS to bring a prosecution, there must be a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’. This means there must be a better chance of conviction than acquittal, so they may decide not to prosecute if there is insufficient evidence to be sure of a conviction. It must also be in the public interest to prosecute.

In deciding whether to prosecute, prosecutors must be fair, objective and independent. Importantly, it is not for the CPS to decide whether or not a suspect is guilty, but to decide whether charges should be brought for the court to then consider. To that end, CPS lawyers must follow the Code for Crown Prosecutors which sets out general principles to adhere to when considering whether to prosecute.

If the CPS has decided to prosecute a case, its duty is to then ensure the right person is prosecuted for the right offence, and to bring offenders to justice wherever possible. It prepares the prosecution case and presents it in the Magistrates’ Court or, in more serious cases, the Crown Court. The CPS also supports and assists victims of crime and witnesses for the prosecution. 

The CPS may take the view that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. It may also decide not to prosecute if the offence was committed a long time ago (historic offences); 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.

Are there any offences beyond DPP/CPS’s jurisdiction?

Yes, there are limits to the jurisdiction of the CPS. In the case of terrorism offences, offences under the Official Secrets Act and certain other serious offences, the decision to prosecute falls to the Attorney General.

The CPS must consult the Attorney General on cases involving national sensitivity or notoriety, and accept his or her power to stop prosecutions that have already begun.  

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A former solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.