Private prosecution refers to the initiation of criminal proceedings by a private individual or organisation rather than a public authority such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the UK.
In the UK, private prosecutions have a long history and are enshrined in common law, allowing individuals and organisations to bring criminal charges against others for a wide range of offenses.
Private prosecutions are relatively rare in the UK, but they are allowed under section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.
This article will provide an overview of private prosecution in the UK, including its history, the legal framework, and the process of bringing a private prosecution. It will also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of private prosecution and some high-profile cases.
History of Private Prosecution in the UK
Private prosecution has a long history in the UK, dating back to medieval times. Before the establishment of a professional police force and public prosecution service, private individuals or organisations were responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal offenses.
In the 19th century, the power to prosecute criminal offenses was gradually transferred to public authorities such as the Crown Prosecution Service. However, private individuals or organisations retained the right to bring private prosecutions, and this right was enshrined in common law.
Today, private prosecution is governed by the Prosecution of Offenses Act 1985 and the Criminal Procedure Rules.
There are, however, some limitations:
- the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has power under section 6(2) POA 1985 to take over private prosecutions;
- in some cases, the private prosecutor must seek the consent of the Attorney General or of the DPP before the commencement of proceedings.
Legal Framework for Private Prosecution
The legal framework for private prosecution in the UK is set out in the Prosecution of Offenses Act 1985, Criminal Procedure Rules and the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980.
Prosecutions instituted and conducted otherwise than by the Service.
(1)Subject to subsection (2) below, nothing in this Part shall preclude any person from instituting any criminal proceedings or conducting any criminal proceedings to which the Director’s duty to take over the conduct of proceedings does not apply.Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offenses Act 1985
The Criminal Procedure Rules 2020 Part 7 “Starting a Prosecution in a Magistrates’ Court” apply to private prosecutions in the UK.
CPR Part 7 contains specific provisions on the procedure to be followed in private prosecutions, including the requirements for the service of documents, the conduct of preliminary hearings, and the transfer of cases to the Crown Court. These rules provide a clear framework for the conduct of private prosecutions and ensure that they are conducted fairly and efficiently.
Section 1 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (MCA 1980) applies to a laying of information at a Magistrates Court :-
Issue of summons to accused or warrant for his arrest.
On an information being laid before a justice of the peace that a person has, or is suspected of having, committed an offence, the justice may issue—Section 1 Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980
(a)a summons directed to that person requiring him to appear before a magistrates’ court to answer the information, or
(b)a warrant to arrest that person and bring him before a magistrates’ court
In order to bring a private prosecution, the individual or organisation must have sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case against the defendant. This means that there must be enough evidence to suggest that the defendant has committed the offense, and that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.
The process of bringing a private prosecution is similar to that of a public prosecution. The CPS publish legal guidance about Private Prosecutions on their website.
How to bring a Private Prosecution
To bring a private prosecution, an individual must first lay an information.
This is a document that sets out the details of the alleged offense and provides evidence to support the claim. The information must be laid before a magistrate or a judge, who will decide whether or not to issue a summons.
The information must contain the following details:
- The name and address of the accused
- The details of the offense, including the date, time, and location
- The evidence supporting the claim
- The name and address of the individual or organization bringing the prosecution
- The name and address of any witnesses
The gov.uk website have published a word document SP001 dated May 2019 Application for summons or warrant for arrest for alleged offence under Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 section 1, CrimPR 7.2(6) which captures all the relevant information to “lay an information” at a Magistrates Court.
You can find a Magistrates Court using the Find a court or tribunal service.
Once the information is laid, the magistrate or judge will consider the evidence and decide, using it’s discretion, whether or not to issue a summons or warrant of arrest.
If the summons is issued, the accused will be required to attend court to answer the charges.
If a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 125 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, then this will be directed to “any constable acting within his police area”.
Advantages of a Private Prosecution
There are several advantages to bringing a private prosecution rather than relying on the public prosecution service.
One of the main advantages is that the individual or organisation has greater control over the proceedings. They can choose the lawyers and experts who will represent them, and they can decide which charges to bring.
Another advantage is that private prosecution can be a more effective way of holding individuals or organisations to account, particularly in cases where the public prosecution service has declined to prosecute. Private prosecutions can also be quicker than public prosecutions, as they are not subject to the same bureaucratic processes.
Disadvantages of Private Prosecution
However, there are also some disadvantages to private prosecution. One of the main disadvantages is the cost.
Private prosecutions can be expensive, as the individual or organisation is responsible for paying for the legal representation and other costs associated with the case. This can be a particular problem for individuals or organisations who do not have significant financial resources.
Private Prosecutions can be seen as a way for individuals and organizations to take the law into their own hands and there is a risk of retaliation, including legal action or harassment.
Private prosecutions can be difficult to win, as the accused person has the right to a fair trial.
If you are considering bringing a private prosecution, it is important to seek legal advice to ensure that you are aware of the risks and potential benefits.
High-Profile Private Prosecutions
In recent years, there have been several high-profile private prosecutions in the United Kingdom that have garnered significant attention. These cases have demonstrated the potential power and impact of private prosecutions in bringing justice to victims and holding individuals accountable for their actions. Let’s explore a few notable examples:
- R v. Gary Dobson and David Norris (Stephen Lawrence Case): One of the most prominent private prosecutions in recent UK history was the private prosecution brought by Stephen Lawrence’s family. Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. Despite strong evidence, the initial investigation failed to secure a conviction. In 1999, Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, utilized the private prosecution route to pursue justice. The private prosecution ultimately led to the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen’s murder in 2012.
- R v. John Downey (Hyde Park Bombing Case): In 2013, a private prosecution was initiated against John Downey, who was accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing in London, which killed four soldiers and injured many others. The prosecution was launched by the families of the victims after the criminal trial against Downey collapsed due to an error in his prosecution. In 2014, the private prosecution was halted by a judge who ruled that Downey could not face trial again due to an official assurance given to him by the government.
- R v. Dale Cregan (Mark Short and David Short Case): Dale Cregan, a notorious criminal, was involved in the murders of Mark Short and his father David Short in 2012 as part of a gangland feud. The Short family decided to pursue a private prosecution against Cregan after the criminal trial against him commenced. However, during the trial, Cregan admitted to the charges, and the private prosecution was discontinued. Nevertheless, this case highlighted the potential for private prosecutions in high-profile criminal matters.
These recent high-profile private prosecutions demonstrate the ability of private individuals to bring justice to victims and hold perpetrators accountable, even in cases where the state prosecution may have faltered or faced challenges. Private prosecutions can play a crucial role in ensuring that no crime goes unpunished.
Private prosecutions are an important part of the legal system in the UK, as they allow individuals to seek justice in the UK legal system.
While there are advantages to bringing a private prosecution, such as control over the case and closure for the victim, there are also several disadvantages.
Nicola Sharp who is a Partner at Rahman Ravelli Solicitors has published a useful article Private Prosecutions: The Process, Defendants’ Options and Mixed Motives.
Check out our article on the highly questionable Sussex Family Justice Board and make up your own mind.
We recommend you should always seek formal legal advice if required, from a qualified and reputable lawyer (solicitor or barrister).
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