Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Law & Order : Police claim ‘evidence sharing’ will force officers off patrols & frontline duties

New legislation which allows defence lawyers to see more evidence in criminal cases will, Police claim, lead to officers being taken off patrol duties to deal with evidence sharing with defence solicitors.

The Scotsman reports :

This red tape will force us to take officers off streets, say police chiefs

Published Date: 02 June 2009
By Michael Howie

NEW laws forcing police to share more evidence with defence lawyers would lead to a "significant" cut in the numbers of front-line officers, a chief constable has warned.

Stephen House, of Strathclyde Police, is cautioning MSPs against approving SNP plans for strict rules over which material gained during crime investigations is passed to defence lawyers, saying similar moves in England and Wales had created a bureaucratic "monster".

Scotland's top serious crime-fighting operation, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), says it would have to dedicate 15 officers to administrative tasks if the move went ahead – effectively costing it £1 million a year.

The Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, which is going through the Scottish Parliament, proposes to create a statutory system for the disclosure of evidence to defence lawyers ahead of trials in all "solemn", or more serious, cases.

The prosecution will have a duty to review all information that may be relevant to a case, whether for or against the accused. That duty will effectively be passed to the police.

It follows a review of the system by Lord Coulsfield, who wrote in his report that police said should "err on the side of recording doubtful material rather than discarding it".

Mr House said: "I'm more than worried about what the provisions in the bill will mean in terms of resources. I worked in the English and Welsh system for 27 years and disclosure was a massive, massive drain on police resources when it commenced. It was a monster."

He said every officer would have to be given training on the new disclosure system, which he claimed would create a huge amount of administrative work for almost every criminal investigation.

Mr House said the proposals were trying to put "too much" into the law, and that there should be more flexibility in terms of deciding what information gained in crime investigations needed to be flagged up.

If the change went ahead, police officers would have to be pulled off every investigation simply to make sure the disclosure rules were complied with, he said.

He added that the current system contained "an element of trust on all sides" about what evidence was potentially significant and therefore should be made available to the defence.

"More and more police officers will have to sit down and work what all the materials are, how you should schedule them, which papers I send to the procurator-fiscal. It will all go into far more detail than the current system," Mr House warned.

Gordon Meldrum, head of the SCDEA, said 15 of his officers would have to be put on to full-time administrative duties. "I believe we would need that number of people because of the scale of our inquiries," he said.

To highlight the scale of the challenge, he said a current inquiry involved some 200,000 documents, adding: "We would have to schedule every single one of these documents."

The SNP has pledged to recruit an extra 1,000 police, and ministers will be anxious to avoid policies that offset this recruitment drive by adding red tape.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "There will be changes in the way people work but the bill provisions seek to clarify the law and broadly enact what is already happening at common law."

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