With reviews under way into disclosure processes, Jamie Wilson suggests forces develop their processes to ensure evidence can be shared more easily.
As we enter 2018 it is an appropriate time to take stock of the year behind and look ahead. We saw out 2017 with much controversy surrounding the trial of Liam Allan, who was acquitted of 12 counts of rape and sexual assault. During the trial it transpired that the investigating officer on the case had not disclosed evidence from the complainant’s phone, which cast doubt on the charges against Mr Allan and the prosecution. The case was subsequently thrown out of court but raised many questions about how police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) navigate the disclosure of evidence process.
Senior barristers have warned that Mr Allan’s case may just be the “tip of the iceberg”. So, what can we learn from this case and more importantly is there a way to support and enhance evidence disclosure procedures?
The current landscape
Currently, the criminal justice loop is feeling a squeeze on resources. There have been cuts from within policing and CPS departments – all coupled with a national shortage of detectives and increasing caseloads. It is no secret that the sheer volume of digital evidence is rising exponentially, while the manual processes investigators use to collect, analyse and share it simply has not kept pace.
In relation to the Liam Allan case, we are seeing much more focus on the process of disclosing unused material, as it was only when the trial was underway that the material in question came into the possession of the defence barristers.
Last year, a report compiled by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and the HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate highlighted the current challenges the criminal justice loop faces during the disclosure of evidence process.
While it is easy to focus on inadequacies, the real challenge is picking apart the system and working on ways to enhance efficiency and compliance.
It is clear that investigating officers need help in collecting, analysing and sharing evidence, ultimately giving every officer that all-important holistic view of the materials collected across the force.
Managing digital evidence
The digital age provides officers with more potential resources at their disposal than ever before, including CCTV video, body-worn video, in-car video, 999 audio and radio recordings. However, the growth in data has also driven an increase in digital silos, making investigations complex and often requiring officers to log onto different systems or travel to various locations in order to manually collect evidence.
The process of sharing evidence historically involved physically transferring paper and other materials from the prosecution to criminal justice agencies and the defence – a slow and costly process, which results in substantial storage costs, regular duplication of information and the risk of loss or unauthorised disclosure.
These inefficiencies have encouraged many forces to look at streamlining the evidence collection process and centralising available data silos into one interface. The volume and variety of digital evidence grows every day and a single case can often generate terabytes of material – making the cloud, and subsequently digital evidence management systems (DEMs), a viable solution for enhancing the disclosure process.
Deploying these systems in the UK would allow investigators to create virtual case folders, which could be securely and electronically shared with the CPS and prosecutors – simply by emailing a link to the digital case file, which tracks access to maintain the integrity of the evidence.
Providing direct access to a digital case file would give the CPS and defence access to all materials pertaining to the case, whether relevant and used, relevant and not used or not used at all, helping to navigate the disclosure process and avoiding instances such as in the Liam Allan case, in which the unused material was available during the trial.
Transferring digital evidence
The digitisation of casework processes is vital to the criminal justice system if it is to remain effective in today’s digital age and beyond. At the moment almost all magistrates’ casework is transferred digitally between the police and CPS, although it can require substantial IT support to ensure a successful transfer.
With the impending launch of the CJS (Criminal Justice System) Common Platform scheduled for next summer, we are set to see police forces looking more closely at how they manage digital evidence and considering tools such as DEMs to assist in the transfer of materials in common file formats. It is suggested that managing digital evidence effectively could save detectives up to six to eight hours a week, as well as saving time and money by automating manual processes.
A digital criminal justice system, where data is captured once by a police officer responding to a crime and then flows through the system without duplication or reworking, is on its way to becoming a reality.
• Jamie Wilson is responsible for public safety marketing for NICE throughout EMEA.