Fair trials at risk because of lack of trust in law

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Defendants are being deprived of a fair trial because judges, lawyers and the police don't trust each other, a Government report has found.

The Home Office research concludes there is a "crisis of trust" among those responsible for applying rules designed to ensure that the defendant's legal team has access to all the evidence at trial.

Since the 1996 Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act the police have been under an obligation to disclose any unused evidence.

The legislation was brought in by a previous Conservative government to end the miscarriage of justice which had plagued the courts in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the Home Office report, entitled "A Fair Balance?", says that the laws are undermined by the fact that police officers and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutors do not trust the courts to resist inappropriate requests from defence teams.

Meanwhile judges and lawyers "do not believe in the ethos of defence disclosure and do not trust the police to apply disclosure tests without prejudice".

The authors, Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson, added that it was "beyond question that judicial attitudes have proved a major stumbling block to the effective operation of the Act's provisions."

They also found a marked reluctance among police forces to inform defence lawyers when police witnesses had criminal convictions or when officers giving evidence for the prosecution had disciplinary findings against them.

Sir Robin Auld, in his review of the criminal courts published in October, also found the disclosure rules were not working properly and asked whether they should be replaced.

Yesterday the Government accepted that the present scheme was "not operating effectively". A Home Office spokeswoman said it was inviting comment on the report findings, particularly in the context of Sir Robin's review.

The researchers surveyed all criminal justice agencies and assessed 193 case studies.

The findings will be of particular concern to the Government after a report last week found that hundreds of defendants were walking free from court each year because of failings in the CPS.

Prosecution lawyers in London were blamed for around 1,800 defendants being discharged in what the report' said had become a "routine occurrence".