Bar Council Chair Urges Parliament to Review Private Prosecutions After Post Office Scandal

London, England – The chair of the Bar Council, Sam Townend KC, is calling for formal regulation of private prosecutions to prevent possible abuses of power. Townend’s suggestion comes in light of the Post Office scandal, where over 3,500 postmasters were accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting, with over 700 facing prosecution. While the Post Office saw itself as a victim in this situation, it was also able to act as a prosecutor, leading Townend to highlight the potential vested interests of those initiating private prosecutions.

This push for regulation comes as the use of private prosecutions has grown significantly over the past decade. The depletion of resources in law enforcement agencies such as the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has limited their ability to investigate and prosecute crimes, resulting in an increase in private prosecutions. Private prosecutions are often brought against individuals involved in complex fraud cases, where specialized investigations are required and the police and CPS lack the adequate resources.

Various public bodies, including the Civil Aviation Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, the Gambling Commission, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Food Standards Agency, are allowed to bring private prosecutions. Individuals, private companies, and charities can also initiate private prosecutions under the Prosecution of Offences Act of 1985, but they must apply to a magistrates court and have the necessary resources to fund the prosecution upfront.

While experts warn against restricting private prosecutions, arguing that this could result in fewer prosecutions for low-level crimes, there are concerns about the potential for a two-tier justice system. Wealthy organizations can afford to pursue private prosecutions, while elderly and vulnerable victims of fraud may not have access to the same resources.

In 2021, the RSPCA announced its decision to cease privately prosecuting individuals accused of animal cruelty and instead hand over its investigations to the CPS. Similar issues related to resources and increasing complexity in cases were cited. The government is currently considering whether public or publicly owned bodies should have the power to bring private prosecutions.

Despite calls for regulation, there are no proposals for change from the government. The private prosecution system has both its supporters and critics. Those in favor argue that it provides an avenue for justice when the state declines to prosecute or lacks the resources to do so. Critics, however, fear potential abuses of power and the impact on a fair justice system.

In conclusion, the growing practice of private prosecutions in the UK has sparked calls for formal regulation from the chair of the Bar Council. The Post Office scandal, along with funding cuts to law enforcement agencies, has highlighted the need to review and assess the use of private prosecutions. While the future of private prosecutions remains uncertain, concerns regarding a possible two-tier justice system and the impact on access to justice for all must be thoughtfully considered.