05:15, June 05 32 0 theguardian.com

2018-06-05 05:15:32
Scores of UK sexual offence cases stopped over evidence failings

Prosecutors and police have found 47 cases where people were charged with rape or sexual attacks that have been stopped because of problems with evidence not being shared with the defence.

The review followed media revelations about disclosure, which is the duty of the prosecution to share potential evidence with the defence, even if it undermines their case.

The Criminal Bar Association said a wider inquiry was needed after the findings. It follows years of warnings that errors in disclosure could lead to the innocent being jailed and the guilty going free.

The police and Crown Prosecution Service set up a review of every rape and serious sexual attack case going through the criminal justice system in January and February. It examined cases where someone had been charged and pleaded not guilty.

Of 3,637 cases reviewed, disclosure was of concern in 47 cases, the CPS said, and they were discontinued.

The cases involved 14 suspects, who had been held in custody on remand before the case against them was halted after this special review.

The cases in all concerned 48 people, of which one was a woman, and a disproportionately high number, 23, were in the Metropolitan police area, which covers most of London.

Alison Saunders, the outgoing head of the CPS, said: “There are cases where we are falling short – and that is unacceptable. I recognise that the huge impact on the individuals involved, and deeply regret every case where mistakes have been made.”

Asst Ch Con Stuart Prior for the National Police Chiefs Council, coordinating the response of 43 forces to the crisis, said: “We have got it wrong in too many cases. We have been slow in addressing the issues. We needed to have acted quicker.”

The findings of the review, which only looked at one type of case – sexual assault – and from a small time period, triggered concerns that more errors may have occurred.

The official miscarriage of justice watchdog warned about disclosure problems two years ago, followed last July by the official inspectorate of the CPS.

Angela Rafferty QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “For the CPS to question the reliability of not just a few but dozens of live rape and sexual offence cases out of a limited sample size of a few thousand will inevitably cause great consternation that some innocent people are already in prisons and many guilty may be walking free.

“We await the wider parliamentary review of the whole disclosure system that is now due – dealing with all criminal cases including sexual offences.”

Police and the CPS briefed the media on the findings of their review before they appeared before MPs on the justice committee on Tuesday morning.

Gregor McGill, of the CPS, pressed on whether a wider review was needed, said: “I can’t speculate on what I don’t know.”

Prosecutors and police said they were introduce improvements.

But one massive issue faced by them is the explosion in digital material held by victims and suspects, on their phones and on social media. It is threatening to overwhelm investigators and is either so voluminous that detectives are not scouring through it all or parts of it potentially helpful to the defence are not being passed on in some cases.

The attorney general is reviewing what can be done.

One new measure will be defence lawyers being asked what evidence their clients want police to look at. For prosecutors it gives them an earlier sight than they might otherwise have of what the defence case might be.