14:57, December 20 69 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-20 14:57:03
The Guardian view on rape and the police: justice first

The Metropolitan police are reviewing 30 pending rape prosecutions in London after two cases collapsed because of a failure to disclose evidence that would have helped the defence in a timely manner. On Tuesday, the case against 25-year-old Isaac Itiary, charged with the rape of a child under 16, collapsed. A week ago, all charges against 22-year-old Liam Allan were dropped. He had been on bail for two years facing a dozen charges of rape and sexual assault. Both young men have endured the life-changing experience of being charged with a terrible crime that they did not commit, that carried the threat of a long prison sentence.

Neither of these cases should ever have happened. In July, at just the time Mr Itiary was charged, a joint review by the inspectorates of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police issued the bluntest of warnings: both process and culture relating to disclosure were so severely flawed as to jeopardise the likelihood of a fair trial. In other words, a disaster was waiting to happen. Now it has.

At its heart lies the failure of police and prosecutors to respect the critical importance of their obligation to disclose material that either undermines the prosecution case or helps the defence. The review found that police do not draw the attention of the CPS to evidence that weakens their case, and the CPS doesn’t question the quality of the material handed over. Neither properly honours the duty of disclosure to help the defence – that is, to ensure a fair trial. They appear more anxious to get a conviction than to see justice done. Circumstances such as the political priority given by Theresa May and continued by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to tackling violence against women and girls only encourage the suspicion – eagerly fostered on the right – that increasing the number of prosecutions and improving conviction rates, which are now at record highs, is taken to legitimise the withholding of evidence. That is a travesty of two facts.

First, the extent of sexual violence in the UK is not a matter of political correctness. It is only slowly emerging as its victims gain the courage to report it. Reporting, prosecution and conviction rates are rising, but from a pathetically low base: the number of reported rapes has more than doubled. The number of convictions has risen by 11%.

Second, the joint report found inadequate disclosure not only in rape cases but across the range of crown court trials. It blamed shoddy police process excused internally by pressure to meet tight case-management deadlines; it found a lack of challenge or even communication between the CPS and the police. It reported “chaos in the courtroom”, last-minute disclosure, unnecessary adjournments and discontinued cases. Some of this might be the kind of false economy imposed by austerity: on Tuesday, police in England and Wales were promised a cash boost, but (in effect) only by raising council tax, a device that might work in rich authorities like Westminster, but which will leave councils with a smaller tax base struggling. Lawyers complain that non-disclosure is encouraged by legal aid cuts: defence lawyers are paid per page of evidence. And the CPS might point to the 23% cuts it has experienced since 2010.

Yet while money matters, culture matters much more. Disclosure rules, like the independent Crown Prosecution Service, were introduced partly in response to terrible miscarriages of justice. The inspectorates’ report leaves the lingering impression that police and prosecution have exactly the shared purpose that independence from one another was expressly designed to deter.

Rape and sexual assault are terrible crimes. They also carry a weighty political symbolism. Treating all rape allegations seriously, pursuing prosecutions energetically, have – at last – become the hallmark of modern government and modern policing. But they do not override the concern to uphold justice.