‘You get what you pay for’: MPs question DPP on disclosure crisis and impact of cuts
The director of public prosecutions was accused by MPs of ‘batting away’ concerns over the scale of the disclosure crisis after failures were revealed in 47 rape and serious sexual offence cases in a six week period earlier this year. Ahead of a session before the House of Commons’ justice committee, the Crown Prosecution Service published the results of a national review launched in the wake of a series of collapsed rape cases starting with the Liam Allan case before Christmas.
The CPS revealed that issues with disclosure had been identified in 47 of 3,637 cases reviewed but only five had been identified as such through the CPS case management system. Some 14 defendants were in custody at the time the decision was made to stop their cases.
The committee chair Bob Neill asked the DPP why serial disclosure failures had happened on her watch. Alison Saunders responded by saying that disclosure had been a long term ‘systemic issue’. Neill then challenged th lawyer on her assertion that ‘the system was working’ in the wake of concerns raised by the Liam Allan case. ‘If somebody has been on bail, or even worse, on remand for many months before the case was stopped, the system hasn’t work very well for them,’ Neill said. ‘I accept we have been reacting too late in the process,’ the DPP replied. ‘That is one of the reasons why we have decided with the police to bring the disclosure scrutiny earlier in the case. We appreciate the impact it has on individuals’ lives and we want to make sure it happens as early as possible.’
Saunders retreated from a previous claim made on Radio 4’s Today programme in January that no one had been sent to prison because of problems with disclosure. ‘Some people have been and they have been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and some people we have referred to the Commission,’ she said.
The DPP was asked if the prospect of wrongful convictions as a result of disclosure failures worried her personally. ‘Yes it does. Any failure I feel it personally because it is bad for individuals, bad for all of those involved in the case and it’s bad for the system.’
The Tory MP Victoria Prentis said: ‘I hope you’re not trying to bat away in a glib fashion the failings in your report.’ Prentis accused the DPP is having ‘presided over system that has enabled a culture’ in which it was not easy to ‘really question and look in a forensic manner at what is going on otherwise Liam Allan would not have been so badly treated’.
‘It is a systemic issue that has been there for a long time. We have talked endlessly and do talk endlessly about it… . In over 30% of cases we do not prosecute. Where I think we have perhaps let things drift though is that we have not dealt with disclosure early enough in the system.’
Alison Saunders on disclosure
Saunders was asked about the impact of budget cuts of 27% at the CPS since 2010 on the crisis. ‘We have lost 30% of our staffing and that has meant it has been challenging to continue to do what we need to do,’ the DPP replied. ‘At the last spending review we did say to the Treasury that we couldn’t take any more cuts. We are recruiting lawyers but we are not always able to get them. I do not think we can take any more cuts to our resources. And some of the disclosure issues mean we may need more.’
Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight last night, the former DPP Ken Macdonald called the level of cuts on the CPS ‘quite intolerable’ and said that the government shared responsibility for the problem for the problems in a service ‘cut to the bone’. ‘You get what you pay for,’ he said. Macdonald said that there had been ‘a deterioration’ in the quality of the handling of disclosure in recent years for a number of reasons. ‘The mass of evidence on social media: it is time consuming there are vast amounts of it and a carelessness has crept in.’
‘The CPS has lost one quarter of its budget during the austerity years and 900 lawyers have been lost. They are under enormous pressure. The police are under pressure. The duty to disclose evidence is a foundational requirement of a fair trial. If the sort of evidence we have been looking at is not supplied to the defence the result is that innocent people will be convicted and will be sent to prison. And it goes the other way. If juries lose faith in the capacity of the prosecution to provide information to the defence, guilty people will be acquitted.’
Another conservative member of the committee, Alex Chalk noted that only five of the 47 cases found to have disclosure issues were identified as such by the CPS. ‘How can we have any confidence in the future when you come to us, or when your successor comes to us, when the data capture doesn’t work.’
Gregor McGill, CPS director of legal services, refused to confirm to the MPs if lawyers would be disciplined over the collapsed cases and Assistant Chief Constable Stuart Prior said it would be a matter for individual forces. ‘Just because a case has been stopped doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is at fault,’ McGill said.
Published on June 6, 2018
Author: Jon Robins
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon’s books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council’s journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year’s Criminal Justice Alliance’s journalism award