Hidden evidence - UK - News - The Independent

Hidden evidence

Victims' families are increasingly concerned about the rules for disclosure of evidence, says Paul Donovan

A number of recent inquests into deaths in police custody have highlighted the failure of the police to disclose vital information to the families of the victims. And the police approach appears to be increasingly resistant, in any setting, to disclosing information.

Following the death in custody of Wayne Douglas in December 1995 the Metropolitan Police conducted an inquiry under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. The family's solicitor, Louise Christian, says she had asked the police for "access to the information and evidence" - including 74 statements and 45 other documents - prior to the inquest, but none was made available.

In the same week an inquest jury in Manchester returned a verdict of death by "misadventure to which neglect contributed" in the case of Leon Patterson, who had died in police custody in November 1992. After two abortive inquests the family were told that 13 new witnesses, including police officers, were to be called, and that there was new medical evidence.

The campaigning organisation Inquest, which supported the family and helped provide legal representation, said that the failure to disclose this new information meant "the family barrister is unable to prepare on an equal footing with the other parties".

Last year, the family of Brian Douglas, who died after being hit with police batons, discovered only at the inquest that the evidence had included some 75 statements and 32 other documents, including officers' notebooks and medical and forensic evidence.

Lawyers for the families of the bereaved highlight their helplessness when faced with failure to disclose relevant material. Louise Christian draws a vivid picture of the police legal team entering the Coroner's Court weighed down with bulging files, whereas, the lawyers for the victim's family have been struggling for months to obtain some information by finding civilian witnesses and trying to reconstruct the scene of the death.

The investigation into most deaths in custody is conducted by the police under the supervision of the PCA. It may take three to six months, during which the family of the victim often receives very little information as to how that person died. The first opportunity to hear a full account may be at the inquest.

The PCA report is sent to the chief officer of the police force concerned, and is their property. As Birnbergs solicitor Raju Bhatt says: "The investigation is conducted by the police, and the perception is that it is carried out for the police."

The PCA appears to recognise the problem that non-disclosure poses for families. The 1995/6 PCA annual report urges "that all interested parties at an inquest should be treated equally".

However, it is believed that the PCA has concentrated its attention on the Coroners Association, rather than the police. As Raju Bhatt emphasises, "the coroner can recommend disclosure, but it is not his to give." The report and other evidence belongs to the police.

Bhatt and Christian contrast their experience of the police attitude to disclosure at inquests, with that of the Home Office regarding prison deaths. "The Home Office chooses to exercise its discretion and allow prior disclosure of a limited amount to the family beforehand," says Bhatt.

When the families feel that they should be better informed, their suffering is frequently increased, and this can build a sense of suspicion about police motives. Deborah Coles, the co-director of Inquest, believes "the failure to disclose gives an impression that the police have something to hide." She contrasts the attitude of the police to disclosure in some cases of death in police custody, with the Marchioness river boat disaster, where the role of the police was not in question, and relatives of those who died received full disclosure.

The unwillingness of the police to disclose information generally can be gauged from looking beyond the Coroner's Court to the Crown Court. Non-disclosure of crucial information has been a common theme in some recent cases of miscarriage of justice.

From the Charles Burke testimony that provided an alibi for Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, through to the evidence that remained undisclosed for 18 years proving the innocence of Judith Ward, the prosecuting side has a sorry record. In the Ward case, crucial interviews remained undisclosed until the first morning of the Court of Appeal hearing in May 1992. The subsequent ruling in that case created an absolute rule of disclosure on the prosecution regarding all material evidence. Delivering judgment, Lord Justice Glidewell said: "Our law does not permit a conviction to be secured by ambush."

Almost from the moment of his judgement, the police seem to have begun campaigning for a reversal of the new ruling. The solicitor Gareth Pierce says the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, set up after the release of the Birmingham Six, was "lobbied non-stop by the police" for the two years that it sat. The imposition of restrictions on the disclosure rule was among the changes sought.

The police also conducted a media campaign emphasising that the disclosure rules were allowing the guilty to walk free. Sir Paul Condon said: "Major criminals and their advisers are exploiting the disclosure rules in a way that just cannot be in the public interest. Over 100 cases have had to be dropped through disclosure rules." The politicians seemed to be only too willing to bow to Sir Paul's demands.

The Criminal Procedure Bill, introduced into Parliament last year, put disclosure in criminal cases on a statutory footing and effectively reversed the obligation created under the Ward case. The Bill shifts the burden of proof further against the accused, by insisting on advanced defence disclosure and placing restrictions on the need for prosecutions to disclose "sensitive" material.

The decision as to the sensitivity of the material now lies with the police, not the Crown Prosecution Service. The police will now prepare two schedules, one of material for disclosure to the defence and the second covering material too sensitive to disclose.

Commenting on the new law, a barrister, Nick Brown, said: "It is deeply ironic that when the common thread of virtually every miscarriage of justice case since the Guildford Four has involved non-disclosure, the Government should respond by limiting the prosecution's obligation to disclose"n

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week