Untold damage was caused by evidence disclosure failings that rocked the criminal justice system, a Government review has concluded.
It found police and prosecutors did not routinely comply with a duty to record, retain and review material collected during investigations.
The report flagged up a catalogue of shortcomings, including a failure to pursue lines of inquiry that might clear the accused.
Publishing the review, the Attorney General’s Office said: “Disclosure obligations begin at the start of an investigation, and investigators have a duty to conduct a thorough investigation, manage all material appropriately and follow all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether they point towards or away from any suspect.
“The review found that this was not happening routinely in all cases.
“At the least this caused costly delays for the justice system and at worst it meant that cases were being pursued which the evidence did not support.
“The impact of these failings caused untold damage to those making allegations and those accused of them.”
Confidence in the criminal justice system was dealt a blow last year after a flurry of cases collapsed.
In the lead-up to trials, police and prosecutors are required to hand over relevant material that can undermine the prosecution case or assist the defence.
The regime came under sharp focus after a string of defendants facing rape allegations had charges against them dropped when critical material emerged at the last minute.
Amid mounting controversy, the Crown Prosecution Service launched a review of every live rape and serious sexual assault prosecution in England and Wales.
The exercise found issues with the disclosure of unused material in 47 cases.
The separate Government assessment published on Thursday examined cases in the magistrates’ courts, as well as more complex crown court cases and specialist types of case, including economic crime and sexual offences.
It concluded disclosure problems are “system-wide” and identified deficiencies including:
– Investigators not pursuing reasonable lines of inquiry that might “exculpate” the accused
– Disclosure obligations not being considered with sufficient attention from the outset of a criminal investigation
– Investigators and their supervisors not thoroughly checking case papers before a submission to prosecutors
– Prosecutors failing to challenge or probe gaps in the investigation
– Disclosure issues and tasks being left until too late a stage
While welcoming steps already being taken by police and the CPS to address the issues, the Government called for a “zero tolerance” culture on disclosure failings.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC said: “For too long, disclosure has been seen as an administrative add-on rather than fundamental pillar of our justice system. This ends now.
“I am confident that the leaders of the police and prosecution now understand the need for change and together we will make sure that public confidence in the disclosure system is restored.”
Noting that the vast increase in digital material has presented investigators and prosecutors with an “unprecedented challenge”, the review suggested greater use of technology such as artificial intelligence.
It also said “significant improvements” could be gained from performing disclosure tasks earlier in the process.
Emily Bolton, legal director of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, said: “While this review accepts that there are serious problems that need fixing, it ignores the plight of those who are already wrongly imprisoned because of police and prosecutors failing to disclose key evidence.”
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said: “Rebuilding public confidence following the issues around disclosure is crucial and I welcome the Attorney General’s recognition of the progress that has been made.
“The CPS has worked closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing to drive lasting improvements and will maintain our focus to make sure we bring about the necessary culture changes.”
NPCC lead for disclosure Assistant Chief Constable Jeremy Burton also welcomed the Attorney General’s recognition of progress made.
He added: “The next phase of the improvement plan will be released soon, and will build on existing foundations to consolidate our progress, and embed the culture shift which ensures all officers and staff recognise that getting disclosure right is a fundamental part of a fair criminal justice system.”