Defence 'not told about convictions of witnesses'

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The Independent Online

In half of all criminal trials in England and Wales at least one important witness for the prosecution has a criminal record, according to research published today.

In half of all criminal trials in England and Wales at least one important witness for the prosecution has a criminal record, according to research published today.

Out of a sample of 228 cases brought by the Crown Prosecution Service last year, 110 were found to have relied on crucial evidence from a witness who has admitted or been found guilty of a criminal offence.

The Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate's report showed that many of these witnesses' previous convictions were not being made known to defence lawyers. This means that the defence team is being denied the chance to challenge the credibility and criminal background of a witness giving evidence against their client. The inspectorate said that gave cause for concern.

Under the law, the police must make a criminal record check of every vital witness or a witness whose evidence is being contested by the defence. But in a further 241 relevant cases the police had failed to make any witness checks at all. This meant that many trials were proceeding without the defence or the CPS being made aware of the criminal record of a prosecution witness.

The inspectors said it was important that all criminal courts had available all information necessary to ensure fair trials. But it also recognised the risk of deterring witnesses from giving evidence if their previous convictions were to be known to the public.

"The common law and the Criminal Procedures and Investigations Act 1996," said the report, "provides some protection from misuse of disclosed information, but this is unlikely to be effective where an individual who has become a witness finds misdemeanours long ago 'spent' become common knowledge amongst neighbours and colleagues."

Overall, the inspectors found that in a "significant number of cases" it had investigated, compliance with the rules of disclosure was "defective". The report also drew attention to the failure of the police and the CPS to disclose closed-circuit television of crime scenes, which could clear defendants when their case came to trial.

It said the police had agreements with third parties - for example, owners of shops and sports centres - which allowed them to view CCTV after a crime had been committed. But if the film was of no use to the prosecution it was not always disclosed to the defence. "In some cases, the existence of CCTV recording came to light after the material had been erased by a third party," the inspectors said. The report concluded there were a number of "shortcomings" relating to the issue of disclosure that gave rise to a lack of confidence in the system.

The chief inspector, Stephen Wooler, said the level of non-compliance with the rules was unacceptable. He added: "The reality is that several aspects of the present arrangements place responsibilities on individuals who are ill-equipped to discharge them."

Responding to the report, the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the CPS, David Calvert-Smith QC, said he had never made any secret of his concern that the disclosure system is not working. "We now need a concerted effort by the police, the CPS and the Bar to make sure disclosure works properly," he said.

The Attorney General's draft guidelines on disclosure are being considered by the police and the legal profession and are expected to be finalised before the summer.