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All Rape Cases Undergo Urgent Review

All Rape Cases Undergo Urgent Review

The Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that every rape and serious sexual assault case in the UK is to be reviewed, following the collapse of a number of high-profile criminal trials in recent weeks.

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, confirmed the measure, saying: “All cases are subject to regular and ongoing scrutiny, but 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.

The emergency re-examination comes after four trial collapses in the last two months due to failures to disclose relevant evidence to defence teams, attracting public scrutiny of the CPS and mounting pressure from Parliament for the current procedures of evidential disclosure to be reviewed.

System is at ‘breaking point’

One 19-year-old defendant, a chemistry student at Oxford University, had all charges dropped on the eve of his trial after waiting two years for the hearing, when evidence from a diary came to light and led prosecutors to abandon the case. Judge Jonathan Black criticised Surrey police for “unnecessary delays” and the failures of the CPS to follow procedure correctly and efficiently.

The Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service has already apologised to 22-year-old Liam Allan, who was charged for 12 counts of rape and sexual assault and similarly awaited trial for two years – only for text messages that had been withheld from the defence team to later surface and indicate that Mr. Allan was innocent.

A judge presiding over another such case criticised the CPS for its apparent “incompetence” when the trial of three people held on trafficking and prostitution charges was dismissed after new material discredited the complainant’s account. Judge Perrins has ordered the prosecution service to write a full report explaining why relevant social media evidence was not disclosed to the defence team.

DPP Saunders has admitted “deep-rooted and systemic disclosure issues” within the current system, and in part pointed to budget cuts for the CPS’s failures, as well as the “vastly increasing” role of social media in trials and a lack of established procedures in place for handling this data. These developments, she affirmed, “bring challenges that all parts of the criminal justice system, despite the resourcing challenges, must deal with.”

Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, emphasised that the current state of affairs impacts criminal barristers too, forcing them to confront “a daily struggle in respect of disclosure, delays and all the other disastrous consequences of a system that is openly described by MPs as at breaking point.”

Improvement plan launched

In response to calls for procedural change, the CPS, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing have published a joint “improvement plan” with policy proposals to tackle the problem.

Under the proposed measures, specialist disclosure experts would operate in every police area, officers would require a “licence to practice in respect of disclosure” by January 2019 in order to be entrusted with the disclosure of evidence, and multi-media evidence would be delivered directly and electronically to the defence.

DPP Saunders is expected to be summoned before Parliament to answer ministers’ questions on the issues raised, and the justice select committee is also launching an inquiry into the matter.

System has its advocates

Nevertheless, criticisms of the system have been rebutted. Attorney General Jeremy Wright admitted that the advent of social media was placing the police in a “new world” of evidence-handling, but denied any underlying problems with the existing system, stating that numbers of specialised prosecutors in rape and sexual offences trials has risen 40% since 2015.

A spokesman for the CPS also emphasised that a relatively small number of cases affected by failures of evidence disclosure: “We prosecuted more than 588,000 defendants in 2016-17 and our conviction rate was 83%. The number of unsuccessful outcomes due to disclosure issues represents 0.15% of these prosecutions,” he said.

A freedom of information inquiry from the BBC revealed a 70% rise in sexual assault cases being dropped for evidence disclosure failings in 2016-17 compared to the previous year.

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