The number of prosecutions in England and Wales that have collapsed as a result of a failure by police or prosecutors to disclose evidence has increased by 70% in the last two years.
In 2017 916 people had charges dropped against them because of a failure to disclose evidence. This is an increase from 537 people in 2014-2015.
Recently a number of trials have collapsed due to the failure to disclose evidence. In December 2017 the trial of Liam Allan was stopped. Mr Allan faced 12 counts of rape and sexual assault however the trial was dropped when it emerged that there was evidence on a computer disc – which the police had looked through – which showed messages from the complainant to Mr Allan in which she had given her consent.
In January 2018 the trial of Oliver Mears was stopped the day before the trial was due to begin. A diary which supported his case was located and subsequently the case against him was dropped. Mr Mears had been arrested in 2015 yet crucial evidence was not disclosed until very close to the trial date.
As a consequence of the above cases all current rape and serious sexual assault cases in England and Wales are to be reviewed as a matter of urgency to ensure that all evidence has been disclosed. The Director of Public Prosecutions has warned that this review may see a number of cases being dropped.
The police and prosecutors are under a duty to disclose evidence or information that might either assist the defence case or undermine the prosecution case. After the collapse of a number of trials the system has come under scrutiny with the concern that evidence is not being disclosed early enough or that disclosure rules are not being followed. There are specifically a number of concerns that information taken from mobile phones, computers and social media is not being shared.
The Attorney General Jeremy Wright has said that there is no evidence of malpractice or dishonesty but that the police and prosecutors need to get to grips with the way that electronic evidence is handled.
The failure to disclose evidence is a huge concern as there is a risk that people are being wrongly convicted of serious crimes because the police or prosecutors are failing to disclose crucial evidence that could lead to the acquittal of the Defendant.
For those involved in the Criminal Justice System on a day to day basis these issues with disclosure may come as no surprise as we constantly argue to obtain evidence that we believe may be crucial to our clients’ cases.
The question now is how this can be avoided in the future. The Director of Public Prosecutions has confirmed that she is now looking at ways in which disclosure could happen earlier. It may be that there needs to be more liaison between the defence and police/prosecutors or possibly that the police and prosecutors need more training when it comes to electronic evidence or the appointment of specialist disclosure experts. What is clear is that there needs to be transparency on the part of those who represent the state and who hold the power to disclose information that has the ability to acquit or convict someone of a crime.
Blog by Sarah Grieve, Trainee Solicitor