Police and prosecutors are causing delays and undermining justice in criminal trials by failing to follow basic rules about disclosing evidence to the defence, a report has found.
Police must log evidence they did not use during an investigation and pass it to the defence if it could assist their case or undermine the prosecution’s.
Two watchdogs said widespread problems in England and Wales increased stress for witnesses, victims and defendants.
Police and the CPS promised action.
The College of Policing said it would review officers’ training on disclosure. The CPS promised it would outline steps it would take later this year.
Fair trials undermined
The report, “Making it Fair”, by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSi) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, said the flaws in disclosure risked leading to wrongful convictions and offenders walking free.
HMCPSi chief inspector Kevin McGinty said there was a “culture of defeated acceptance” that disclosure issues would be dealt with at the last moment, if at all.
“A failure to deal effectively with disclosure has a corrosive effect on the criminal justice system,” he said.
He said it undermined the principles of a fair trial, the foundation of the justice system.
“It adds delay, cost and increases the stress faced by witnesses, victims and defendants,” he said.
Mr McGinty said police “don’t know what they’re doing” regarding disclosure.
‘Chaotic’ court scenes
He accused the CPS of failing to “challenge” officers when there were gaps in their record-keeping – which the inspection report found to be “routinely poor”.
The report said the failings often led to “chaotic scenes” outside the courtroom as barristers tried to resolve disclosure failings at the “last-minute”, resulting in trials collapsing or being postponed.
In one example, a sexual assault case involving a child had to be delayed when it emerged a day before the trial that the child had written a letter which contradicted their evidence.
In another case, the jury in a burglary trial were discharged and a retrial ordered after the judge decided their view of it was distorted by the failure of police and prosecutors to disclose evidence to the defence.
The defence was unaware police had found chisel marks on a window of the burgled property and that the defendant was found with a chisel – but that the two didn’t match.
Steps to come
Responding to the findings, CPS director of legal services Gregor McGill said it understood the importance of complying with statutory obligations on the disclosure of unused material and said the CPS was committed to doing so.
“We will urgently work with our partners in policing, and other agencies, to address the findings in this report,” he said.
He said the CPS was already working with police to improve performance but there was more to be done and the next steps would be outlined in a report later this year.