I thought the evils of “pooled” recollections by police officers were a thing of the past since the enactment of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but apparently I was wrong.

For the uninitiated, before the Act, police officers investigating crime would routinely “make up” their pocket book entries together, and their individual recollections of relevant events would be a mirror image of each and every other officer involved, even down to the syntax. Cross examination of these fine upstanding guardians of law and order was a predictable and sterile exercise, as every question was met with the well rehearsed reply: “If it’s in my pocket book, it must be true, and if it isn’t, I don’t remember”. Worse still was the interview with the suspect, where no contemporaneous record was kept, no solicitor present, and then, hours later in the comfort of the canteen, the interviewing officers would commit to paper a verbatim account of the interview, which might well have lasted an hour or two. Almost without exception, the interview concluded with the suspect saying: “It’s a fair cop, guv, I’m bang to rights, looks like I’ll do porridge this time.” The suspect was never invited to sign the verbatim account as being true!

And the sad reality of this charade was that juries believed these fine upstanding guardians of law and order. And on the occasions when I invited the police officer to record verbatim my cross examination, in the same way he had recorded the suspect’s interview, the judge would jump in and admonish me. “A court of law is not the appropriate arena to conduct a forensic exercise of the witness’s mental agility,” he would chunter. If not a court of law, then where, I ask rhetorically.

The 1984 Act finally acknowledged the possibility of a miscarriage of justice when dishonest police officers fabricated their evidence, and rules were laid down to ensure, where humanly possible, that “confessions” were properly and fairly recorded.

So imagine my dismay when I read the judgment of Mr. Justice Underhill in the High Court concerning the death of Mark Saunders, who was shot dead by the police. You will recall my own views on the incident in an earlier article [Licence to kill] written at the time of his death. The judgment, albeit reluctantly expressed, stamps his judicial imprimatur on the practice of police officers conferring before making notes. According to the Police Federation, this is “a long accepted practice which is intended to achieve best evidence!” Best evidence for the police officers involved, or best evidence in the search for truth and justice?!?

Mr. Justice Underhill justified the practice on the grounds, inter alia, that preventing officers from conferring would create “a very serious risk of individual officers refusing to provide a statement” and “would encourage a perception that they were…….suspects and not witnesses.” Utter poppycock!

If police officers have done nothing wrong when shooting dead a fellow citizen, then they have nothing to hide. If they have, then they need to be held to account.

In the light of the judgment, police chiefs are considering changing the police manual to ban collaboration. Too little, too late, for Mark Saunders.

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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