A piece in today’s Times:
The number of collapsed criminal cases has almost doubled in four years, with murder and rape trials halted over failures to disclose evidence to defence lawyers.
Figures from the Crown Prosecution Service show that on average last year about two criminal cases a day were dropped because of delays in bringing them to court or an abuse of process.
The rising number of collapsed cases is adding to concerns that budget cuts at the CPS are taking their toll and potentially allowing some offenders who have committed serious crimes to walk free, while risking miscarriages of justice for those wrongly charged.
According to figures disclosed after a freedom of information request, 1,078 cases were discontinued because of failures in disclosure during the first nine months of last year, up from 567 in the whole of 2014.
Police and prosecutors have a legal obligation to disclose any material that the prosecution will not use when the case comes to trial and evidence that may assist a defendant’s legal team.
Liam Allan, a student, was cleared of rape two years ago after the prosecuting barrister unearthed evidence that vindicated him and should have been disclosed to his lawyers.
There were 535 prosecutions discontinued because of delays or abuse of process in the first nine months of last year, which gives 714 if that rate continued for the whole year, compared with 631 cases in 2014, up 13 per cent.
The figures also illustrated that fewer cases overall were being prosecuted. In 2017, the last full year for which statistics were available, there were 549,793 “completed prosecution outcomes” — which include prosecutions that ended in conviction, acquittal or discharge as well as those dropped by the CPS. That was a fall of 19 per cent since 2014.
Criminal law specialists have warned that the justice system was hit particularly hard by austerity. The CPS budget is at least 30 per cent lower than it was in 2010, which has forced a reduction in the number of lawyers and administrative staff. Those cuts coincided with an increase in digital evidence in criminal cases linked to the growing use of electronic communication devices.
Lawyers on the front line of the criminal courts said the CPS figures on disclosure and delay were not surprising, but highlighted a dangerous failure in the system nonetheless.
“Disclosure of unused material in criminal cases is a core justice duty,” Caroline Goodwin, QC, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association, said. “The government has a constitutional and moral duty to ensure that there is sufficient funding across the system to ensure a good and proper disclosure regime. This starts at the grass roots, from the commencement of an investigation, with sufficient and appropriately trained police officers, to source, locate and retrieve material relevant to an inquiry.”
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, which represents 143,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said the prosecution system was “starved of funds [and] plagued by endemic delays”.
A CPS spokeswoman said: “There has been an unprecedented effort by the CPS and police in the last two years to overhaul working practices and make sure we are getting disclosure processes right. We have been clear these significant cultural changes will not happen overnight.”
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