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The presumption of innocence: why we shouldn’t assume it was wrong to charge Rebekah Brooks

The gap between accusation and guilt is not a bug in our criminal justice: it’s a necessary and desirable feature.

Rebekah Brooks arriving at the Old Bailey in May 2014. Photo: Getty
Rebekah Brooks arriving at the Old Bailey in May 2014. Photo: Getty

There are serious questions for the Crown Prosecution Service, some said instantly on hearing Rebekah Brooks found not guilty of conspiring to intercept communications and pervert the course of justice. My heart sank.

It’s not that prosecutors shouldn’t be questioned, or that this is a trivial affair. Charging someone with an offence is always serious, and the CPS must be scrutinised. I’m not against questions, some of which may be serious. What’s not serious is to respond reflexively to any high-profile case, like Brooks’s or that of Nigel Evans earlier this year, as though the mere fact of acquittal shows it was wrong to prosecute in the first place. To think like this is fundamentally to misunderstand criminal justice, and ironically to undermine its most important principle.

I say ironically, because those whose instinct is to attack the CPS often think they’re standing up for the presumption of innocence. People are innocent and entitled to be treated as such, their thinking goes, until proven guilty. So we should be slow to prosecute, ensuring innocent people do not suffer the hell of accusation and being “put on trial”. A unanimous not guilty verdict, the reasoning continues, shows that the CPS has taken a case forward too readily. Prosecutors should be really sure that those they charge will be proven guilty.

But a pretty high bar is already in place. Before prosecuting a case like this, applying the Code for Crown Prosecutors, the CPS must think on the evidence it has that there’s a reasonable prospect of conviction; in other words, that a reasonable jury will probably convict. What it must decide is not whether it thinks the suspect is guilty, or probably guilty – but whether twelve reasonable people will probably feel sure she is, beyond reasonable doubt. 

The distinction is crucial. In common sense terms, the CPS test isn’t as “high” as that applied by a jury. More importantly, what the CPS and juries do is different in nature. Prosecutors don’t determine guilt, and couldn’t do so fairly even if they tried. A fair verdict can, by definition, only be given after prosecution witnesses are cross-examined by others, and their evidence tested at what we call a trial. A true verdict cannot be prejudged.

But in a sense that’s what you’re arguing for if you say the tests for charge and conviction should be more closely aligned – that the CPS must be sure a jury will be sure, for instance. The implication is that we can know in advance of a trial who’s guilty, or nearly so; and that we ought to make this judgment early so the public can rest easy, confident that conviction will follow charge as night follows day. That, though, is the opposite of presuming people innocent. I did once hear it argued that a 100 per cent conviction rate is proof of a truly fair justice system. “Your British Crown persecutes the innocent,” the man said, “while our public prosecutors do their jobs admirably. The courts consistently prove them right, you see?” I think it was in 1984; he spoke for the then People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. That’s where you end, if accusation equals guilt.

To use a technological cliché, the gap between accusation and guilt is not a bug in our criminal justice: it’s a necessary and desirable feature. Once you accept that evidence can be shaken, and that even credible allegations may not ultimately be believed, it’s obvious some cases will result in acquittal so long as the accused are defended robustly and juries make independent decisions after fair hearings. The urge to narrow the gap between charge and verdict is not just wrong, but dangerous.

I can’t be certain it was right to charge Rebekah Brooks. Only those who know what was on the CPS file at the time, or at least followed all the prosecution evidence closely, can offer a serious opinion. But just as it is possible they made a mistake here, it’s equally possible that the CPS wrongly charges people who end up convicted: that, in truth, is the real risk the system is designed to prevent, and which we should worry about more. No verdict, in itself, tells you whether the CPS has acted properly. You can’t see conviction as vindicating a decision to charge, any more than acquittal proves it was wrong. Yet that, surely, is implicit in responding to the mere fact of an acquittal with concern, unsettled by the absence of a reassuring conviction.

The presumption of innocence is inconvenient: its practical working out condemns innocent people to long anguish and changed lives. But the presumption needs, sometimes, to be defended from its would-be defenders. It means we can never be sure anyone’s guilty when they’re accused. For freedom’s sake, let’s not pretend we can.