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Crown Prosecution Service: Disclosure Procedures

Volume 788: debated on Monday 29 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to set up an independent inquiry into the role of the Crown Prosecution Service and its relationship with police authorities in respect of disclosure procedures in criminal cases.

My Lords, following a joint inspectorate report last year, the Attorney-General launched a review of disclosure procedures. This will report in the summer. Last week, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing and the CPS published a joint action plan for disclosure improvement. The House of Commons Justice Committee has now announced an inquiry into disclosure. We have no present intention to institute an additional inquiry.

My Lords, I welcome what is being done belatedly, but confidence in the criminal legal system in the Crown courts has been seeping away almost daily. Will the action proposed apply also to the magistrates’ court, where non-proceeding seems to be the norm? Since the DPP, who has made some very bold statements, is obviously struggling with the police, with their limited resources, to provide material for disclosure, will the Attorney-General join the Home Secretary in studying what was done in 1998? There was a failure to prosecute deaths in custody cases, so I appointed a senior ex-circuit judge to do an independent review, and he delivered a damning report in two or three months.

My Lords, we recognise that compliance with disclosure requirements is vital if there is ever to be a fair trial. On a review of present policy, the Attorney-General’s review will take account of recent reports from judges and Her Majesty’s inspectors, as well as gathering additional evidence from bodies, including the judiciary, the Bar Council, the Law Society, police representatives, and prosecutors. In addition, last week the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary addressed a joint letter to both the CPS and the chief constable of the national policing lead on disclosure and the chief executive of the College of Policing, repeating their expectation that a full review is undertaken of all cases similar to those that have already been identified, to determine whether disclosure has been properly carried out.

Does the Minister not agree that it would be quite disproportionate for the victim to be required to disclose all her emails and electronic messaging to her attacker and his lawyers to trawl through at considerable public expense? Will the Minister not pursue the suggestion I made in our debate a fortnight ago that there should be a protocol whereby a defendant is required to give key words, such as his name, his nickname, places, people and events, to the prosecution for it to carry out such an investigation and to disclose whatever material he has suggested is produced?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the indication that it would be disproportionate for a victim or complainer to have to disclose the entirety of their social media communications. It would be intrusive and inappropriate, and would impact upon the willingness of complainers to come forward in particular circumstances, so there has to be a balance. It would also raise very real data protection issues, so we have to take account of that. As regards a protocol, we are reviewing protocols in the context of disclosure, and I noted what the noble Lord said about a keyword search.

My Lords, is it feasible for the police to ask the complainer whether they have commented on the relationship in question in any media? I do not mean that they should give any detail, but at least it would alert the police as to whether it was worth looking at. Secondly, it is over 32 years since I had responsibility for these matters in Scotland, but I wonder whether there is any suggestion that this problem exists there.

I am obliged to my noble and learned friend for his observations. On the police inquiries, as I understand it there is no reason why the police should not make appropriate inquiries of a complainer with respect to her social media and other communications that might be relevant to a particular complaint. In addition, the defence have to submit a schedule outlining their own case, in which they will have the opportunity to identify from the police schedule of material that has been recovered that which should be disclosed for the purposes of trial. On whether a similar issue has arisen in Scotland, disclosure is an issue in all jurisdictions; it is a question of how it is handled. Here we are concerned with the handling issue, not a resource issue.

My Lords, I could not disagree more with the Minister. We are, quite simply, dealing with a resource issue. The law on disclosure is as clear as daylight, but it was written before iPhones and social media came into existence. Does the Minister agree that whatever guidance is issued to the police and their forensic IT investigators, there has to be some concern about whether they have the resources to do this in cases of rape when they also have cases of terrorism and organised crime to deal with?

My Lords, clearly the development of digital media has increased the demands made on both the police and the prosecution service in the investigation of crime. Indeed, in their most recent report, National Disclosure Improvement Plan, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing and the Crown Prosecution Service indicated that they will develop a joint protocol by March 2018 for the examination of digital media.

My Lords, on the one hand we have urgent crisis reviews of pending prosecutions for fear of potential non-disclosure and unsafe trials and, on the other hand, we have various women’s groups telling us that the existing law designed to protect women from degrading questioning about their sexual histories is not being applied, and that causes fear as well. To add insult to injury, a notorious sex offender will be released on parole without rhyme or reason and without a voice for the victims of crime. Will the Minister please agree that it is time for the Government to give urgent attention, if not resources, to restoring faith, trust and confidence in our criminal justice system?

My Lords, what is necessary is that a responsible Government should not arm wave but, instead, respect the rule of law.