PCS members in the Crown Prosecution Service say deep cuts which have led to a chronic lack of resources and significant additional work placed upon lawyers and the police are really to blame for the current crisis of confidence in prosecution handling of the disclosure of unused material in criminal cases.
In the lead-up to criminal trials, police and prosecutors have a duty to disclose evidence or information that might either help the defence case, or harm the prosecution's case.
But the system has come under scrutiny after the collapse of a number of trials, heightening concerns that evidence is not being disclosed early enough - or that rules are not being followed.
PCS union members working in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) disagree with the Attorney General Jeremy Wright who blamed the current crisis of confidence in prosecution handling of the disclosure of unused material on police officers and prosecutors failing to carry out ‘basic procedure’.
The MP was talking in an interview on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme at the weekend and in subsequent interviews about concern at a number of high-profile prosecutions which have failed in court because of the late disclosure of unused material. Jeremy Wright, in what the Daily Telegraph termed a ‘stinging criticism’ said that there was no excuse for the failures and that there was a serious concern with how disclosure protocol is followed. He denied that public sector funding cuts have in any way contributed to the situation saying: “I think it would be wrong to reduce this to an argument about resources.”
Legislation requires prosecuting authorities to review all material which comes into their possession during the investigation and prosecution of a case and that any material which assists the defence case or undermines that of the prosecution must be disclosed to the defence. Although the current interest is in rape cases, the duty exists in all criminal prosecutions.
The PCS CPS group believes that the role that the cuts imposed by this government and its coalition predecessor cannot be ignored. Since 2010 the CPS has suffered cuts of one quarter of its budget, and a third of its staff.
PCS represents both legal and administrative staff in the CPS. It is wholly unfair to put the blame for the recent failures of criminal prosecutions on those who work to conduct criminal prosecutions with dwindling resources, little recognition and diminishing reward. The system for handling unused material was set up in 1996 legislation, well before the current explosion of social media and access to online data which has made the consideration of unused material a job unrecognisable to that which was envisaged when the legislation was enacted. We say that it is wrong to think, as the attorney general does, that this important, difficult and exacting work can be done as it should be without the allocation of proper resources.
Fabric of court crumbling
Concerns about a chronic lack of resources have also been raised this by chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Angela Rafferty, who said that failures to disclose evidence in rape prosecutions are a sign of the “dystopian disaster” engulfing the criminal justice system that has been caused by chronic government underfunding.
She criticised ministers for trying to promote the justice system as “a national asset” at the time of Brexit when in reality “the fabric of the court estate [is] crumbling”.
The Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, has launched legal action against the Ministry of Justice for cutting fees for defence lawyers, who have to examine increasingly large volumes of material recovered from mobile phones and laptops.