Holmes picks up the trail

Sean Webster finds out how an ex-police officer is helping to solve the contentious problem of disclosure of information by offering lawyers access to a national inquiry network
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The Independent Online
Recent miscarriages of justice have focused attention on the failure of the prosecution to disclose material that it did not intend to use in its case.

While solicitors regularly accuse the police of withholding material relevant to the defence, in turn the police have begun to attack the defence for making requests for disclosure that they say place unreasonable demands on police time and resources.

Detective Chief Superintendent Michael Woodhouse of West Yorkshire Police says: "The problem is exacerbated by the demands of defence solicitors who have abandoned traditional defences to criminal charges in favour of defence by default or loophole. This involves jamming up the workings of the prosecution by making outrageous and unreasonable demands for information, and then complaining they are not met."

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that a new service for defence solicitors is being offered by a former police officer. David Burden has entered the controversial arena by making use of the police's own computer system - the Home Office Large Major Inquiry System (Holmes).

Mr Burden was part of the team that developed Holmes for the Essex police and the Home Office 10 years ago.

The system was set up after the police failed to pull together leads pointing to the identity of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, allowing Peter Sutcliffe initially to slip through the police inquiry net.

It has been widely acknowledged that in the Ripper inquiry different police forces failed to communicate effectively because they were using incompatible systems to store the vast amounts of information generated by the inquiry. There was general recognition that a single national system was needed to pool information from all over the country. Mr Burden is offering to gain access to the system on behalf of defence lawyers to search out potential witnesses and other information. The drawback is that he can do this only if the police allow him access. So far, Bedfordshire and the Metropolitan police forces have given him limited access to Holmes.

The system is a goldmine for those who know precisely where to mine for leads, Mr Burden says. The system contains information such as witness statements, police internal messages and action forms naming officers for specific jobs in an inquiry.

Mr Burden says that disclosure without using Holmes is like searching for a needle in a haystack. It can be used, for instance, to check that the police have disclosed all unused material, to discover the names of all people fitting a particular description who have been seen by the police during an inquiry, to search for owners of cars of a certain colour or make, and to find details of any other suspects arrested and subsequently eliminated from an inquiry.

The real benefit for defence lawyers, however, is that it provides a unique insight into the management of an inquiry and into what the police were doing at any particular stage.

Bob Duffield, an associate producer for Channel 4's Trial and Error programme, who has consulted Mr Burden in several investigations into possible miscarriages of justice, says the service is invaluable to solicitors. "When looking at a miscarriage, you are trying to review the management of a case, because if there has been a miscarriage by definition there has been mismanagement.

"Mr Burden helps to identify the point at which the police have targeted the wrong person at the expense of other evidence. He is the pathfinder who knows the short cuts to access the valuable information stored on the system."

Mr Burden believes the police should welcome defence lawyers using his services. "I look for specifics, rather than going on a trawl for information, thereby saving time and expense for the police as well as the defence," he says. In any event, sensitive information, such as the identity of informants or the addresses of prosecution witnesses, remains confidential to the police.

Holmes mark 2 is being developed, and as police technology improves, others are likely to follow in Mr Burden's footsteps, offering the defence a unique window into police investigations.

The writer is a journalist for Just Television.