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Boris in the dock: The rise of private criminal prosecutions

Regan Peggs Solicitors

Private prosecutions are under the spotlight after MP Boris Johnson became the target of an attempted private criminal prosecution over allegations of misconduct in public office.

Here we address some common questions about private prosecution - an increasingly popular yet often misunderstood route to criminal justice.

What are private prosecutions, and how are they different from other criminal cases?

We tend to think about individuals taking each other to court in terms of civil litigation (suing), with criminal investigations and prosecutions thought of as being solely the realm of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

In fact, everyone has the right to bring a private criminal prosecution against another person, without the involvement of either the police or the CPS.

Unlike civil cases, criminal prosecutions do not usually involve personal financial compensation, and cases are heard in Magistrates’ and Crown courts rather than in civil courts.

What kind of cases can be privately prosecuted?

Many private prosecutions involve financial crimes such as fraud, although increasingly we are seeing cases involving a wide range of offences.

Indeed, private criminal prosecutions have become more common as cuts to the police and courts system have left many victims of crime without proper avenues to justice.

Any type of crime can result in a private prosecution: examples of recent cases with which our firm has been involved include:

The prosecution of business partners who defrauded an associate of approximately £1m.

The prosecution of a rogue builder who carried out shoddy work without the proper insurance.

The prosecution of a company that ripped off a supplier by obtaining work for which it was unable to pay.

The prosecution of an individual for sexual offences.

In order to bring a private prosecution, there needs to be compelling evidence that can be used to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused has committed a crime.

Private prosecutions are complex cases which should not be undertaken lightly.

However, when sufficient evidence is available, an experienced criminal prosecutor can put together a strong case that stands a good chance of success.

Who funds private prosecutions?

Historically, private prosecutions have tended to be brought only by extremely wealthy individuals.

In recent years we have also seen many financed through crowdfunding - as was the case in the failed prosecution involving Boris Johnson, which was launched by a campaigner who had successfully crowdfunded £200,000 to meet his costs.

However, the idea that this type of justice is only available to those with money is wrong - it is possible, and indeed normal, for full costs to be recovered by the prosecution.

For the vast majority of private prosecutions, costs may be recovered in one of two ways:

If the prosecution is successful, the court will usually expect the convicted defendant to pay costs, with the funds collected directly by the courts (or by their enforcement officers), then passed on.

If the prosecution is not successful, prosecution costs can be recovered from ‘central funds’, which are public monies held by the courts.

Central funds may also be used in cases where a defendant cannot pay the costs (for example if they are going to prison, or have no money).

Of course, not all prosecutors will attempt to recover costs, if the client is willing to pay out of their own pocket. By choosing a prosecutor who understands that cost recovery should be a standard part of private prosecution procedure, it is possible for anyone to access the private route to justice without the prohibitive price tag.

For more information about private prosecutions, contact Regan Peggs Solicitors on 0121 201 3765 or at info@reganpeggs.com.

Regan Peggs is an experienced solicitor advocate and founder of Birmingham-based law firm Regan Peggs Solicitors, one of the few firms in England and Wales with specialist experience bringing private criminal prosecutions.