A new criminal offence of corruption in a public office has been proposed by the legal watchdog to replace the current “outdated” and “unclear” laws that are open to abuse.
Prosecutions for misconduct in public office have risen to an average of 80 a year in recent years. The sharp increase has prompted concern about the vagueness of the offence, which is based on precedent rather than specified in a parliamentary act, and has led to failed complaints.
The Law Commission has recommended the present common law offence of misconduct in public office should be split into two crimes. Corruption, and Breach of Duty, where an official’s failure to do their job properly might lead to serious injury or death.
The offence of corruption would cover a public office holder who used their position to obtain a benefit or detriment that would be considered seriously improper by a “reasonable person”. The commission cited as an example the case of a police officer who took sexual advantage of a vulnerable victim. For the second offence, breach of duty, they cited the example of a death in prison as a result of the reckless failure of a prison officer to prevent it.
The commission suggested the new criminal offence would carry a maximum of between 10 and 14 years in jail, compared with the top penalty of life for misconduct. The report recommended the new law should specify which jobs were “public offices”, which would range from civil servants to MPs, councillors, quango employees, councils, schools, the NHS, public corporations, judges and magistrates but, to “maintain consistent treatment with other religious leaders,” would not include bishops.
The criminal law commissioner, Prof Penney Lewis, said, “The offence of misconduct in public office has been rightly criticised for being outdated, vague, and open to misuse.”
The commission has also said that prosecutions should only go ahead if agreed by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to ensure the right cases are prosecuted and to prevent “vexatious” private prosecutions.