The Importance of Managing Digital Evidence in the Disclosure Process

As we enter 2018 it's 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 wrongly accused 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 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's no secret that the sheer volume of digital evidence is rising exponentially, while the manual processes investigators use to collect, analyze and share it simply haven't kept pace.

In relation to the Liam Allan case, we're seeing much 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 defense 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's easy to focus on inadequacies, the real challenge is picking apart the system and working on ways to enhance efficiency and compliance. It's clear that investigating offices need help in collecting, analyzing 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 police officers with more 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 on to 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 defense, a slow and costly process which results in substantial storage costs, regular duplication of information and the risk of loss or unauthorized disclosure. These inefficiencies have encouraged many forces up and down the country to look at streamlining the evidence collection process and centralizing 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 cloud-based Digital Evidence Management Systems (DEMs) even more important to 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 a digital case file. The system also tracks access to maintain the integrity of evidence.

Providing direct access to a digital case file would give the CPS and defense access to all materials pertaining to the case, whether they be relevant and used, relevant and not used, or simply not relevant and not used at all. This would help to navigate the disclosure process and avoid instances such as in Allan's case where the previously unused material was then found and made available during the trial.

Transferring digital evidence

In today's digital age and beyond, for the criminal justice system to remain effective, the digitization of casework processes is vital. 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 Common Platform scheduled for next summer, we're 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 has been suggested that through more effective management of digital evidence and process automation, a detective can save as much as 6 to 8 hours per week. 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, could soon be a reality.

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