CPS or forces’ failure to disclose stopped 900 criminal cases in England and Wales going ahead
Police forces have a “cultural problem” with disclosure of evidence, a chief constable has said, after it emerged that 900 criminal cases in England and Wales were dropped last year.
Figures obtained by the BBC under freedom of information showed charges against 916 people had been dropped in 2016-17 due to a failure to disclose evidence, up 70% from 537 in 2014-15.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said this represented 0.15% of the total number of prosecutions, but conceded that there were still “systemic disclosure issues”.
The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), however, said it highlighted the need to swiftly improve and appoint disclosure champions in each force.
The investigation comes after the high-profile collapse of several rape trials, including the case against the Oxford University student Oliver Mears, which was dropped last week days before he was due to go on trial. In December, the trial of Liam Allan was halted at Croydon crown court in south London, while days later, a prosecution against Isaac Itiary at Inner London crown court collapsed.
Nick Ephgrave, the chief constable of Surrey police, the force responsible for the Mears case, and the lead on criminal justice for the NPCC, said in a blogpost: “We have had a cultural problem with disclosure, where it is too often seen by police officers as a thing to be done at the end of an investigation, becoming subsequent to, rather than integral to, the investigation. Changing this mindset is an immediate challenge for us.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday that the NPCC and CPS were about to publish a review aimed at tackling the problem.
“Training … is forming part of a very aggressive improvement plan that I’ve developed together with colleagues in the CPS, which is imminently due for publication,” he said.
Ephgrave said he was going to ask chief constables at the council on Wednesday afternoon to support the nomination of senior officers as disclosure champions in every force “so that we can really start to affect the mindset change that we need”.
But he said the increase in digital information presented “real challenges for the police service”, with the average smartphone containing the equivalent of 30,000 pages of A4 paper in information.
Angela Rafferty QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, told the BBC that barristers faced “a daily struggle in respect of disclosure, delays and all the other disastrous consequences of a system that is openly described by MPs as at breaking point”.
A CPS spokesman said: “We prosecuted more than 588,000 defendants in 2016-17 and our conviction rate was 83%. The number of unsuccessful outcomes due to disclosure issues represents 0.15% of these prosecutions.
“That is still too many, however, and we are clear that there are systemic disclosure issues across the criminal justice system, which will require a collective effort in order to bring about improvement.”