03:06, July 20 63 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-20 03:06:08
MPs criticise DPP Alison Saunders over collapse of rape trials

The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has been criticised by MPs for failing to get to grips with disclosure problems that led to the collapse of multiple rape trials.

In a stinging report, the Commons justice select committee accuses her of not recognising the extent of difficulties caused by delays in releasing, or by withholding, evidence in prosecutions.

A series of rape trials collapsed at the end of last year and the beginning of this year when text and social media exchanges belatedly emerged that undermined complainants’ accounts. Trials were halted and charges dropped. When she appeared before the committee in June, Saunders accepted that some people had been wrongly imprisoned as a result of disclosure failings.

“We are ... surprised and disappointed that the DPP, who should be closer to these problems [than the attorney general] on a day-to-day basis, does not appear to have pressed for more urgent action to address the worsening situation,” the report says.

“We do not feel that the director has sufficiently recognised the extent and seriousness of the failures of disclosure by police and the [Crown Prosecution Service]”

The DPP did not know that the case against Liam Allan – a student acquitted of rape and assault charges after messages were eventually released – had not been recorded as a disclosure error, the MPs said. “The director has not acted as quickly and proactively as required and this, it appears to us, has permeated throughout the organisation.”

The CPS’s own internal review of rape and sexual offences may have underestimated the number of disclosure errors by around 90%, the report says. The growth of digital material from mobile phones, laptops, CCTV and other sources, is adding to the pressure.

Bob Neill MP, the Conservative chair of the select committee, said: “Disclosure failings are extremely damaging for those concerned and can have a permanent life-long impact. These failings have caused miscarriages of justice and – as the DPP even admitted to us – some people have gone to prison as a result.

“The proliferation of electronic evidence makes disclosure ever more challenging, and we need the right skills, technology, resources and guidelines, to resolve this ... The failings are symptomatic of a system under immense strain: without change, we cannot expect the public to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”

One of those whose trials collapsed late last year was Samuel Armstrong, chief of staff to the Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay. He had been charged with raping a woman in the palace of Westminster but was acquitted after material his lawyers had sought was finally handed over halfway through the trial.

“The failures of disclosure were a consequence of a toxic culture that treated statutory duties as an administrative burden,” he told the Guardian. “As a result, dozens of young people saw their lives ruined ... It’s not about resources, it’s about culture. I was prosecuted by senior lawyers. They were very well resourced.”

The attorney general is conducting a review of disclosure. The committee calls for “a shift in culture” towards viewing it as a core duty not just an administrative add-on.

Responding to the report, Saunders, said: “Getting disclosure right is a fundamental part of a fair criminal justice system. I have been very clear that addressing the longstanding problems in managing disclosure across the criminal justice system is my top priority.

“There is an unprecedented focus on finding solutions, and extensive action has been under way over the past year to bring about the necessary change not just in how cases are handled, but in the wider culture within the CPS and policing.

“The National Disclosure Improvement Plan, published jointly with the police in January, is already having a positive effect. This is not a quick fix. We will evaluate the measures taken, and agree further commitments to ensure there is continuous improvement.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for criminal justice, chief constable Nick Ephgrave, said: “There is now an unprecedented commitment and focus on finding long-term solutions to the issues that exist throughout the entire justice system.

“Police have already established disclosure champions at chief officer level in every force to improve and maintain disclosure standards, as well as implemented local disclosure improvement plans between the CPS and individual police forces.

“We have found the director of public prosecutions to be fully aware of the extent and seriousness of the disclosure failures and fully committed to working with us to drive the changes that are needed across the whole system.”

In a separate report, also released on Friday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warns that HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s £1.2bn programme to modernise the courts is “hugely ambitious and on a scale which has never been attempted anywhere before”.

The plan involves digitising paper-based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing more courts and centralising customer services. “Such sweeping changes will be extremely challenging to deliver,” the PAC report states. “HMCTS needs to ensure that the savings expected from these reforms are genuine rather than the consequence of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system such as the police, prison service or Crown Prosecution Service all of which have their own pressures to manage.”

Between 2010-11 and December 2017, HMCTS closed 258 courts in England and Wales. “These courts have been closed before moving services online, meaning that many people are having to travel further to access justice,” the report says. “This can cause many people severe difficulties, particularly for those who rely on public transport or have caring responsibilities.”

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