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Decision-making in the Crown Prosecution Service: How do prosecutors make case decisions?



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Widdicombe, Benjamin 


Abstract Decision-making in the Crown Prosecution Service: How do prosecutors make case decisions?

This thesis aims to develop our understanding of how Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors in England and Wales make case decisions. My main argument is that the official account of how prosecutors make decisions as set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors provides only a partial and somewhat misleading picture of decision-making, and that other, broader, factors are at play. The research adopts Hawkins’s analytic framework of the ‘Surround’, ‘Field; and ‘Frame’ and develops it by using empirical data to explore, identify and map these wider factors.

Drawing upon analysis of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, official documents, Crown Prosecution Service management data and interviews with Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors, my argument is developed by exploring four key areas: the history of trends in criminal justice and how they are reflected in successive editions of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, an exploration of the principles prosecutors consider when making decisions, the psychology of prosecution decision-making, and a comparison between those factors that show a statistical correlation to outcome and those that prosecutors identify as being important.

The findings from the fieldwork suggest that the Code for Crown Prosecutors contains gaps and ambiguities and is interpreted and applied in a range of ways by prosecutors. Therefore, our understanding of prosecutor decision-making should be broadened and deepened by reconceptualising decision-making as resting upon a far wider set of factors. The analysis suggests that prosecutors reflect in their decisions some broader political trends across the criminal justice system; certain case factors, such as the offence type, defendant age and prior convictions are of particular importance, as are prosecutor views on key prosecution principles. The findings also suggest that prosecutors make use of mental shortcuts to come to quick case decisions when they are under pressure. The analysis suggests that Hawkins’s original model of decision-making can be improved by allowing for a greater integration and fluidity between the three analytical levels he proposed.





Padfield, Nicola
Glesthorpe, Loraine


CPS, Crown Prosecutor, Decision-making, Discretion, Prosecutions


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge