Police may need ‘licence to practise’ after evidence failings

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Police officers dealing with the disclosure of evidence could be required to obtain a “licence to practise” within a year after a string of rape cases collapsed.

Specialist disclosure experts will be posted in every force area as part of efforts to address failings that have rocked confidence in the criminal justice system.

A flurry of cases have sparked serious concerns over arrangements surrounding the disclosure to defence teams of crucial evidence.

In the lead-up to trials, police and prosecutors are required to hand over relevant material that either undermines the prosecution case or assists the defence case.

But the regime came under sharp focus after defendants facing rape allegations had the charges against them dropped when critical evidence emerged at the 11th hour.

On Friday the Crown Prosecution Service, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing published a disclosure “improvement plan”.

It set out plans to review training on disclosure, develop a cadre of specialist and experienced disclosure experts in every force and provide all multimedia evidence from the CPS to the defence via direct electronic link by July.

The document also commits to reviewing whether there “should be a requirement for officers to hold a Licence to Practise in respect of disclosure” by January 2019.

Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said: “The CPS and police have a vital role in ensuring there is a fair trial process in place to protect the public. Proper disclosure is a fundamental part of this.

“The steps we have already taken, along with the measures we have announced today, are aimed at tackling the deep-rooted and systemic disclosure issues which are of great concern to us all.”

She said changes in society, such as the “vastly increasing” use of social media and mobile phone messaging “bring challenges that all parts of the criminal justice system, despite the resourcing challenges, must deal with”.

The improvement plan refers to an “explosion” in volume of digital material created in criminal investigations, with “greater strain” being placed on the capacity for lawyers and individual officers to consider disclosure.

Chief Constable Nick Ephgrave, the NPCC lead for criminal justice, said: “Disclosure is an essential element of the criminal justice process, but has too often been seen as an administrative task completed at the end of an investigation, exacerbated by the rapid expansion of digital material involved in almost every case.

“We now need to firmly embed disclosure in the investigative mindset from the outset of any investigation.

“Reviews of recent cases have shown a range of issues leading to failures but there has been no intention by officers to conceal information.”

He expressed confidence the plan will lead to “real improvements in quick time”.

Ms Saunders said steps are being taken to identify any individual cases of concern “as a matter of urgency”.

Senior prosecutors across England and Wales are currently assessing all live rape and serious sexual assault cases to check they are satisfied that disclosure obligations have been met.

Ms Saunders added: “Inevitably, bringing forward these case reviews means it is likely that there may be a number of cases which we will be stopping at around the same time.”

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