07:45, October 05 99 0 theguardian.com

2020-10-05 07:45:05
Accuracy of England and Wales convictions on police computer questioned after 'slip'

The accuracy of convictions stored on the Police National Computer (PNC) has been questioned after the courts service apologised when two offences were wrongly recorded against a defendant.

The error led to a woman who had not at that stage been tried gaining a criminal record for offences relating to a violent crime she denied, and took three months for her lawyers to correct. It was dismissed by HM Courts and Tribunal Service as a “slip”.

The case, which recently came to trial, highlights the fact that mistakes can occur in the system that is supposed to be the ultimate authority on criminal records in England and Wales.

A lawyer involved in the case reported hearing of other mistakes on the same day. Checks are supposed to be in place to ensure criminal convictions are correctly recorded.

Three months after the convictions were entered on to the PNC, the courts service, HMCTS, sent the woman a letter apologising for the error.The Guardian is not identifying the individual affected.

It stated: “Very occasionally, there can be a slip in the digital system. Our records suggest that this must unfortunately have applied on … in your case.”

The letter said a detective inspector “has been notified to take corrective action of the Police National Computer Records”.

On the day on which her guilty pleas were entered on to the PNC, the defendant had not even been to court. The letter added: “I apologise on behalf of HMCTS for the error made and any anxiety caused.”

When the case eventually came to trial the defendant contested the allegations. One charge was dismissed; she was found guilty on the other but given a conditional discharge, which will be on her record.

Anna Mazzola, a senior solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “It does make you wonder about how information is recorded on the PNC and checked. It took them a long time to deal with this.”

The mistakes are understood to have been due to human error when information that updated the PNC was wrongly entered by court staff. They are said not to have been connected to the gradual digitalisation of the justice system or due to disruption caused by the pandemic.

Solicitors specialising in criminal work said it was common practice for them to check their clients’ previous criminal records carefully because occasionally they were not accurate.

Ian Kelcey, a senior partner at the Bristol law firm Kelcey and Hall, who used to chair the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said: “Sometimes clients have told me they have convictions which are not on their records. I wouldn’t say it’s a regular occurrence. Mistakes are more likely with people who have common surnames like Smith, Jones or Hussain.”

Sometimes clients denied or forgot they had convictions, Kelcey added, “but there are occasions when it does not appear to be them [on the PNC]. Then they have to go back and check the fingerprints. You are always going to find the odd flaw in the system. It’s possible there are people walking around with convictions they know nothing about. Around 99.9% of the time the records are accurate.”

Earlier this year, the Home Office was accused of depriving police of sufficient funds to ensure the PNC operated correctly and sent records of foreign nationals convicted in the UK to their home countries.

A spokesperson for HMCTS said: “Mistakes like this are extremely rare and we acted swiftly to correct it. We sincerely apologise to the individual concerned.”