A lack of resources is a “factor” in disclosure failings that have led to collapsed rape trials, but those cases are primarily the result of police and prosecutors not acting as expected, the Attorney General has said.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it was reviewing all live rape and sexual offence cases after a string of defendants facing rape allegations had the charges against them dropped when critical evidence emerged at the 11th hour.
The cases have rocked confidence in the criminal justice system and Jeremy Wright QC said there was a “substantial problem” with how the disclosure regime was being followed.
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.
Mr Wright said disclosure was “basic stuff”, but that he did not believe there was evidence of “widespread malpractice or dishonesty”.
He said he had encouraged the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, to look at similar cases to ensure no more mistakes are being made.
But asked by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if a lack of police and CPS resources was behind the failings, Mr Wright said: “That’s not true. Let me simply say this to you – in relation to the Crown Prosecution Service, the number of specialist prosecutors who deal with rape and sexual offences have increased by 40% since 2015.
“What we are talking about here is those people doing the job they are expected to do and following the disclosure regime properly – that’s what we should all expect them to do.”
He said he recognised the justice system was in a “new world” as a result of the often “large volume” of digital evidence, such as social media messages, and he had initiated a review into the wider disclosure regime.
But pressed again on whether cuts to the criminal justice system, such as to legal aid, were a factor, Mr Wright said: “I think it would be wrong to reduce this to an argument about resources – I think it’s much more fundamental than that.
“Of course it’s a factor and you have got make sure they are people who are doing the work, but once you’ve got them they need to know what they are doing and they need to do it properly.
“The failings in these cases have not been because there wasn’t a police officer and there wasn’t a prosecutor, it’s because they didn’t appear to be applying the regime they are expected to apply in conducting disclosure properly.”
Asked whether Ms Saunders should consider her position, Mr Wright said it was a “joint effort” the responsibility of both the CPS and the police to get disclosure right.
On Friday, Ms Saunders said of the rape cases review: “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.”
The CPS, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing also published a disclosure “improvement plan”.
The document commits to reviewing whether there “should be a requirement for officers to hold a Licence to Practise in respect of disclosure” by January 2019.