Up and up go conviction rates - and Neil plays a leading part

NEIL Franklin is the longest-serving chief crown prosecutor since the inception of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1986.

And his efforts were rewarded when he received an OBE for services to the CPS and criminal justice in 2006.

"The award was a reflection of a team of excellent, dedicated people and our partners in the criminal justice system," he said.

The Leeds-born lawyer attended Roundhay High School and graduated at Liverpool University in 1970.

Articled to Levi & Co, Neil qualified as a solicitor in 1975 and worked in private practice until 1979 when he joined the West Yorkshire prosecuting solicitors' department.

"Pre-CPS days, I had a chance to get into court and develop as a criminal lawyer," said Neil, who is married to Lynda and has twin sons.

Posts for the CPS started at Sheffield and Rotherham as branch crown prosecutor, assistant chief crown prosecutor for CPS Humber and then chief crown prosecutor for Severn Thames in 1996.

Neil took the helm in West Yorkshire in April, 1999.

"When the CPS was set up I got promoted fairly rapidly," he recalled.

"Labour returned to power in 1997 and set out an agenda for the CPS, which included a restructure of large regions.

"Running Severn Thames, I had to drive performance up despite living on borrowed time.

"Performance is about high standards leading to good outcomes, which is getting the guilty convicted."

In the plumb West Yorkshire post, Neil, 61, is responsible for 300 staff delivering a high-quality service to more than two million people in the county.

Working in close partnership with chief officers in the criminal justice system, he is accountable to the Director of Public Prosecutions and CPS chief executive.

Neil also advises Ministers and MPs.

On his appointment a decade ago, however, there were huge challenges.

"We had to increase community awareness of the CPS and raise our profile with other criminal justice agencies to give us more influence," he explained.

Neil established police/CPS co-location and drove the development of the prosecution team ethos, which forms the basis for CPS-police relations.

"We created offices in all major police stations with lawyers providing pre-charge advice in 14 locations," he said. "This reduced to eight but more recently I've centralised the service.

"Effectively, we have a telephone call centre using lawyers in Leeds. Police send evidence electronically and we provide advice.

"I remember a time when we lost more than 35 per cent of cases charged, but now it's below 20 per cent.

"Having an early look at cases and advising police how to build strong cases to get a conviction works. We are getting more convictions and losing fewer cases."

The West Yorkshire region has had many high-profile cases, including the Bradford race riots in July, 2001.

"There was a concerted assault on the civil forces of order for around 16 hours," recalled Neil.

"Racial tensions were heightened. It was a challenge because we knew that convictions meant significant sentences of imprisonment.

"All residents in the Bradford Asian community could see was a family member throwing one or two bricks, but suddenly they could be going to prison for five years.

"At community meetings we explained that riots were not about the actions of one person but the actions of hundreds of people creating a certain outcome, which was around 20million of damage and hundreds of people cowering in homes fearing they may be burned down.

"Anyone participating was going to be charged with riot and face the consequences, which was eventually understood.

"Opportunistic television reporters did not help, but as a consequence of prosecuting with a great deal of robustness people will now think twice before acting like that again."

Concerned at the difficulty in prosecuting rape cases, Neil has set up a rape and serious sexual offence unit.

"A small number of dedicated lawyers work on these cases," he said.

"It's not easy work, but we are developing far greater competence.

"The important thing is getting cases right because there is a risk you are wrecking someone's life on a case that may not be evidentially brilliant.

"But if you don't run the cases, you're accused of not supporting the victims of rape."

Regarding antisemitic incidents, Neil noted: "Among some highly-politicised individuals, particularly around the universities, there is a willingness to draw a link between Jews in general and what is happening in Israel.

"British Jews have no say in what happens in Israel, but that is irrelevant to these people. There were real tensions, particularly when there was publicity on events in Gaza.

"I speak to many Muslims and it's a hugely sensitive area as there are people on both sides of the argument totally at odds with each other.

"I hope Barack Obama is successful in creating a process that takes the tension out of the region."

Neil believes the CPS must play a role in community cohesion on this sensitive topic.

"Jewish and Muslim leaders have a responsibility in this county to work together and try to heal tensions," he said.

"In doing so, it could be a model of working together in a wider dimension. Anything the CPS can do I'm happy to get involved in."

Neil set up the first Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel in 2001, which has been recognised nationally.

"We were prosecuting fewer than 200 hate-crime cases a year, which was very low for West Yorkshire and results were poor," he noted.

"We were losing around 40 per cent of cases. A panel comprising people outside the CPS worked with victims of hate-crime and analysed where we went wrong with cases.

"Staff were shown how to prosecute cases better and we helped police improve investigations. The panel reminds the community that the CPS is an open organisation.

"We now prosecute around 600 cases a year and are driving up community confidence."

In a demanding role, Neil took a national lead in developing advocacy for non-qualified lawyers.

"Thirty per cent-plus of all magistrate courts' advocacy is covered by people who are not qualified lawyers and they do a terrific job," he said.

"Long term, the CPS needs to get into the business of diverting people from court.

"We could do much more in cautioning people conditionally and if we had resources would provide our own programmes.

"People commit crimes for various reasons and taking them to court is not necessarily the right answer. If behaviour can be improved through early diversion, then let's do it.

"We need to be more imaginative in terms of remedies.

"You cannot keep sending people to prison.

"We have the biggest prison population per capita in Western Europe, which is pushing towards 90,000 when it was 50,000 a decade ago.

"We have to find other solutions."

As for calls for capital punishment, he commented: "Intellectually I'm against it because we see convictions subsequently overturned.

"It's a very draconian thing for the state to take a life, but you get exposed to cases where your immediate reaction is - and I make no apologies - that a person should be hanged.

"But you come back to the fact the criminal justice system is not a precision tool. What if you hang the wrong person?"

Neil added: "The hardest part of the job is ensuring we make the right decisions and handle cases with victims of serious crimes when they are understandably emotionally involved."

A member at the United Hebrew Congregation and avid follower of Leeds United, Neil was CPS "Gold Commander" in the UK during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

In this role, he was responsible for ensuring all areas were equipped to obtain football banning orders on England supporters prosecuted in Germany.

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph