The quality of the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of disclosure remained ‘unacceptably low’ with prosecutors failing to identify when police had not disclosed all the relevant evidence in more than half of cases, according to a new watchdog report.
The new study by HM Chief Inspector Kevin McGinty follows a damning 2017 joint inspection which found ‘a culture of defeated acceptance’ and that the prosecution failed to meet its disclosure obligations in four out of 10 cases.
The earlier report came out just before the collapse of the Liam Allan case and on the day that Richard Horwell QC published his report into the Cardiff Three which found that ‘disclosure problems have blighted our criminal justice system for too long’ (more here).
The new report shows improvement but, as acknowledged by the inspectorate, from ‘a low baseline’: for example, a 28% improvement of the CPS correctly advising the police in the charging advice on reasonable lines of enquiry from 46% to 74%; as well as an increase of over 20% in the number of cases where the CPS charging advice dealt properly with disclosable and non-disclosable unused material fully meeting the required standard (from 29% to 49%). It also revealed that the CPS improved its compliance with the requirement for the prosecutor to review the defence statement and provide comments and advice to the police from 41% of cases to 60% of cases.
The report draws on analysis of more than a thousand cases, an assessment of 560 cases immediately after the CPS made a charging decision and 555 ‘live’ cases examined two weeks before trial. According to the inspectorate, an acceptable standard would be ‘full compliance’ and an assessment of 100% by inspectors.
According to McGinty there had been ‘a concerted effort by the police and CPS’ since 2017 however the challenge was ‘considerable’. ‘The CPS has been struggling to deal with its caseload without having the numbers of lawyers needed to do it,’ he said. ‘Similarly, the police have struggled with the impact of stretched resources and the lack of understanding of disclosure obligations by inexperienced police officers. It will take time for the issues identified in our earlier report to be fully met.’
The report records improvements but, the inspector, added ‘from a low baseline and it is clear that performance needs to improve further to reach an acceptable standard. This is still work in progress.’
‘Struggling to cope…’
‘It is in the day to day work in the Crown Court that disclosure problems arise. This work… suffers from the impact of stretched police resources and the lack of understanding of criminal justice matters by large numbers of inexperienced police officers who are only infrequently required to compile a prosecution file. The quality of case preparation, and thus the handling of disclosure, is also often undermined by under-resourced CPS staff who are struggling to cope with the sheer volume of work. Over the past few years HMCPSI has, in a number of reports, found fault with the CPS and identified areas where it could improve. Almost without exception, those faults have been caused or exacerbated by the problem of too few legal staff being spread too thinly over a volume of work of ever increasing complexity.’
HM Crown Prosecution Inspectorate