PLOD IN THE FRAME AGAIN

Some interesting news for your delectation:  Alison Saunders, the beleaguered Director of Public Prosecutions, will not be offered an extension to her five year contract when it expires in October.  I wonder why not.

According to Alison, it was her decision to shoulder arms, and any suggestion that the government has had enough of her questionable competence is flatly contradicted by her, but then, it would be wouldn’t it?

Is it only five years since Ms. Saunders was appointed?  It sees much longer.  In fairness to her, she has done her best with limited intelligence to run an enormous and unwieldy service, and inevitably mistakes were going to be made.  But the difference between a leader and an also ran is the ability to sort out the mess, admit mistakes, put them right and move on.

Before the creation of the Clown Prosecution Service in 1986, Plod used to prosecute their own cases on their own patch, they had their own solicitors, and for the most part, their cases were farmed out to local barristers.  It was all very cosy and incestuous.  If mistakes were made, they were ‘corrected’ in-house, and life went on.  By keeping it local, blunders, and worse still, blatant corruption, were swept under the carpet, and the lads stuck together.  Corroboration, an important and independent part of the prosecutor’s armoury, consisted of one police officer signing his colleague’s pocket book to signify agreement without even reading it, and putting it before the jury as the cast-iron truth, on my babby’s life!

The worst excesses of local prosecutions came with the signed confession, long before the days of tape recorders, when confessions were faithfully recorded in the interviewing officers’ pocket books well after the confession was made, and usually over a mug of tea in the police canteen. The oft repeated maxim that the notes were made whilst matters were still fresh in the memory was all that was required.  It was fertile ground for fabrication and ground that was regularly tilled.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that Plod to a man were corrupt, but as they say, all it takes is one bad apple.  The idea that a national prosecuting service would bring respectability to the task of bringing the guilty to justice slowly took root, and in 1986, during the reign of the Blessed St. Margaret, a former barrister, the Clown Prosecution Service was born, in the hope that there would be uniform national standards applied to address the criticisms of incompetence and  worse still, corruption.  It has been better than before, but not without its problems.

But what has been Ms. Saunders’ undoing has been sex, and her pathetic  and dangerously complacent response to it.  I refer specifically to the recent scandal of sexual complainants lying to Plod and even to the jury when no sexual abuse had taken place.  There are all sorts of excuses and explanations, but its root cause is the direction from on high to Plod to believe without question these false allegations.  In so doing, they are not properly investigated, if at all, and for the most part, these allegations take place in private, with one person’s word against another’s.  This is where independent corroboration, not fabricated, is vital in the pursuit of the truth, and sadly, Ms. Saunders has been found wanting.  Worse still, she won’t admit it.

She was an in-house appointment, which was a mistake.  Word on the street is that the government has acknowledged that the post of Director of Public Prosecutions is not one for intellectual pygmies, so the search for the next director will cast a wide net.  It’s a thankless task, so I cannot see many heavyweight legal luminaries putting their names forward.  And before you ask, no, I have no intention of supping from the poisoned chalice.

There is much work to be done, and little time to restore damaged reputations.  So my strong advice to Ms. Saunders in the remaining 6 months, say and do as little as possible to preserve your publicly funded and very generous pension.

FAIR PLAY

Miscarriages of justice are suddenly front page news. Two in particular are worthy of comment. Terry Gilfoyle has spent 17 years in prison for the murder of his wife, and now Sean Hodgson, who has spent nearly 3o years in prison for the murder of a girl back in 1979. The third, known as the Cardiff Three, has led to the arrest of several police officers for perverting the course of public justice, and in December last year, three witnesses at the original trial back in 1990 were convicted of perjury. In their case, they spent a mere 2 years in prison before their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal.

In the case of Hodgson, doubt on his conviction has been cast by new DNA evidence that was not available at his trial, indeed, DNA was a distant pipedream at the time. This has happened in other recent cases where innocent men and women have been wrongly convicted. As far as I am aware, no criticism attaches to the trial process, where the jury must have been sure of guilt on the evidence before them.

However, in the cases of the Cardiff Three and Terry Gilfoyle, different considerations apply. To put it bluntly, the Cardiff Three were allegedly “fitted up” by incompetent, or worse still, corrupt police officers, and amazingly, nobody spotted it, or if they did, chose to ignore it. This is all the more surprising when the Lord Chief Justice, quashing the convictions two years later, described the police techniques as “almost passing belief.” So why didn’t the trial judge spot what was in front of his nose? And more to the point, why didn’t the Crown Prosecution Service?

In Gilfoyle’s case, and thanks to investigative journalism by The Times, the time of his wife’s death was recorded by a doctor and deliberately withheld from the defence at the trial. If disclosed and accepted by the jury, it would have given him a cast iron alibi.

I cannot comment further on these two cases, as they are sub judice and I would not wish to prejudice the outcome of any inquiry. But these two cases throw into sharp focus the relationship between the police, as investigators, and the CPS as prosecutors. In an ideal world, and it’s in the manual, the CPS should act as ministers of justice, whose function is not to secure a conviction, but to place ALL the evidence, good, bad and ugly, into the public arena. Thereafter, they can pick and choose what evidence to call during the trial, but they cannot, and must not, pick and choose what evidence they will disclose. Again, it’s in the manual.

In the days when I used to prosecute for the CPS, I never felt comfortable about their relationship with the police. Instead of following the manual, all too often they saw themselves as supporting the police, warts and all. Worse still, I was often shown documents described as “confidential – not to be disclosed to the defence”, and I couldn’t for the life of me see why not, so I disclosed them. Needless to say, my “favourite son” status was short lived, the more so when I questioned the merits of the case from the outset, and did my best to secure an acquittal.

Above all, if prosecutions are tainted by partiality, and convictions rendered unsafe as a result, it undermines public confidence in the entire criminal justice system, and places an intolerable burden on the jury to put right injustices and potential miscarriages of justice that are no part of their function. In short, it becomes a lottery, and that has no place in a civilised society.