The evasive language of Alison Saunders

Have you noticed how Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions – head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the government prosecutors in England and Wales – resorts to the passive and sentences starting with “it” when she is under pressure?

She has done this recently in statements put out by her office when there is bad news to respond to.

I know that lawyers, more than most, have a tendency to cower behind the passive sense when it suits them.

I am not  certain whether this is instinctive, a planned tendency to evade making a direct comment – or just because they have the same illiteracy levels as other trades (including journalism).

I find it particularly hard to assess the CPS because, if my memory is correct, commenting  every five seconds is relatively new. In the past they said nothing at all; now, when it suits them, they say as little as possible at great length.

Look at their website and pick some examples (www.cps.gov.uk).

Saunders herself was very keen to associate herself with the decision to conuslt on how to give greater assistance to those giving evidence in court. Her statement used the active a lot – and sentences had subjects.

Look too at the positive language of Anamarie Coomansingh, Senior District Crown Prosecutor from West Midlands Crown Prosecution Service’s Complex Casework Unit, after the successful prosecution of child abuser Simon Harris.

“When he was no longer able to teach as a result of his abuse of young victims in Devon, he turned his attention to Kenya where he set up a charity to work with children. Many of these boys in Kenya were illiterate, homeless and extremely vulnerable. Aware of these facts, he callously took advantage of their circumstances and their surroundings to sexually abuse them.

So you see CPS lawyers can be positive when they have a victory.

But look what happens when they are on the defensive. One example is the de Freitas case – http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/09/police-eleanor-de-freitas-rape-complaint-perverting-course-justice – for the full details.

Saunders was keen to say this “was one of the most difficult I have seen,” as she did when questioned on assisted suicide. She said:  “This is, of course, an emotive subject on which many hold strong views and these cases present difficult and complex decisions for prosecutors. Each case must be considered on its own facts and merits and prosecutors must weigh each public interest factor depending on the circumstances of each case and go on to make an overall assessment.”

Surely she was appointed became DPP was because she had the capacity to take the difficult decisions, not to tell us they were difficult.

And note how, in the last two sentences, those who have to take the decisions are put well down the sentences rather than in their natural position at the start.

And so to this week; it has not been a good one for Saunders or the CPS. The media are damning their decisions on operation Elveden (journalists accused of making illegal payments to public officials) and her decision not to prosecute the alleged paedophile Lord Janner.

Lawyers tend to use a lot more words than real people. Saunders is far from concise in her statement justifying the decision to drop the Operation Elvedon prosecutions.

For example (and remember this is a considered statement), she wrote:

“In these circumstances the police inquiry was inevitable as was the subsequent duty on prosecutors to decide if the evidence was sufficient to prosecute. The CPS made every effort to provide advice on charges as quickly as possible, and the majority of the decisions made by the CPS in relation to these cases were completed within three months of a file being received from the Metropolitan Police.”

She could have said (you can drop the “In these circumstances” because it is blindingly obvious – and I have not even tried to put in active verbs). And of course, if you are providing advice “as quickly as possible” it is obvious you are making every effort. She also say “in relation to these cases” – what other cases could she be talking about.

She could have said:

“The police inquiry was inevitable and prosecutors had a duty to decide if the evidence justified a prosecution. The CPS advised on charges as quickly as possible and took most decisions on prosecution within three months of receiving a Metropolitan Police file.”

Without even thinking it is possible to cut 20% off one paragraph.  Saunders clearly does not believe in the clarity that comes from brevity.

And then there is the Janner case. Her extremely long statement used more words than necessary. Just a tweak of the grammar would have delivered much greater clarity.

Note too how she does not name the individuals responsible for failing to prosecute Janner in 1991, 2002 and 2007.

Take this paragraph.

“In relation to the other three previous investigations, the CPS also now considers that the evidential test was passed. It follows that the CPS judges that mistakes were made in the decision making at the time by both the Leicestershire police in 2002 and the CPS in 1991 and 2007. Lord Janner should have been prosecuted in relation to those complaints.

This is a wonderful phrase; “mistakes were made in the decision making at the time.” Mistakes dont make themselves – someone makes mistakes. “Decision making” is gloriously vague – it doesn’t say where the buck stopped – a typical bureaucrat’s approach to blame a process rather than an individual.

Let’s look at another sentence: “It is a matter of deep regret that the decisions in relation to the previous investigations were as they were.”

She starts with “it is a matter of deep regret.” Why cant she just say “I regret” rather depersonalising it. “Decisions in relation to the previous investingations” – all the words except the first one were unnecessary. “The decisions… were as they were.”Perish the thought that they should say the word “wrong” even though that was the clear implication of her statement. Nor does she state specifically who took those decisions.

Why cant she just say; “I regret the fact that the CPS and Metropolitan Police took decisions that I believe to be wrong.”

She does indeed get to use the “wrong” word  when she says it is “of obvious and particular concern that such proceedings did not take place as a result of what the CPS now consider to be wrong decisions.”

Firstly, if something is obvious, you dont need to state it is obvious.

Secondly there is no specific link to individuals – you can work it out of course (institutions if not people) but why not state what has happened in a straightforward way.

I would though make this point.

The modern fashion is for CPS lawyers to appear in public – and their presentation is often superb.

But they need proper media training to make the contents of what they say more credible when they are explaining a loss or a setback.

The legal trade shies away from clarity and brevity when this happens. That may be fine in the courts but not in the real world – and when they talk in this way, they seem as credible as a dodgy witness.

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4 thoughts on “The evasive language of Alison Saunders

  1. It’s very odd that the DPP and the police have indulged in a trial through public opinion by revealing so much evidence without taking it to trial.

    Makes you wonder whether Janner’s memory isn’t sufficiently atrophied to prevent him from implicating powerful others if taken to trial.

    The seriousness of the allegations should have resulted in a trial – if only to find out who covered up and removed evidence, which public bodies and policemen were implicated?

    Does the DPP not want the truth out there?

    The police have covered their backs by making very unusual disclosures; the DPP has covered her back indicting Janner and Mrs May has covered the government’s back by appearing outraged – yet we all know that the Attorney General could have overturned the DPP’s decision – but not a peep from him.

    Can no one smell a fish rotting from the head?

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  2. I think you have the makings of a valid point here, but you cheapen it with the following statement:

    “Lawyers tend to use a lot more words than real people”

    What, pray, is a “real person” and why are lawyers excluded from being one?

    I also feel your criticism over the use of the passive voice is overstated and, frankly, a bit misleading. For example, you quote:

    “This is a wonderful phrase; “mistakes were made in the decision making at the time.” Mistakes dont make themselves – someone makes mistakes.”

    This is a biting criticism – except that it is based on an incomplete quotation. Read the original sentence in full and you will see that it quite clearly identifies who made the mistakes (Leicestershire police and the CPS); it is in the passive, yes, so if it had been phrased in the active there would have been greater rhetorical emphasis on the decision making bodies, but that is way more marginal than your criticism. I therefore consider this bit of the analysis selective and disingenuous. (If one’s criticism is that the statement does not identify the individuals responsible, then I think that is a criticism that goes beyond mere use of language.)

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    1. On real people – perhaps a little gratuitous. All I meant to highlight was the tendency of lawyers to write 200 words when they could make the point equally clearly.
      I disagree totally with your other criticism. The phrase “decision making” and the word “mistakes” are very vague – and about the mimimum criticism that could be made. As for “Leicestershire police etc”, she has referred to the institution rather than the individual – the buck should stop with people rather than an institution.
      If you cannot see the duplicity in the presentation of that statement, you are probably a lawyer, a civil servant or and academic.

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