The collapse of the rape prosecution trial against Liam Allan in Croydon Crown Court could have widespread ramifications for other criminal cases, because it was discovered the police withheld 50,000 text messages when such information should have been disclosed as a matter of course.
Liam Allan was a 19 year old criminology student when he was accused of raping a young woman with whom he previously had a relationship over a 14 month time period. The charges against him were so serious he was warned that, if convicted, he could face up to a 20 year prison sentence.
Speaking outside court, Mr Allan told The Times: “I can’t explain the mental torture of the past two years. I feel betrayed by the system which I had believed would do the right thing – the system I want to work in.”
Writing in the paper, prosecuting barrister and former Conservative MP Jerry Hayes said: “I told the judge that this was the most appalling failure of disclosure that I have ever encountered.
“The CPS are under terrible pressure, as are the police. Both work hard but are badly under-resourced.
“Crown court trials only work because of the co-operation and goodwill of advocates and the bench – but time pressures are making this increasingly difficult.
“Because of the swingeing cuts that the Treasury continuously imposes, the system is not just creaking, it is about to croak.”
The barrister Matthew Scott has written a comprehensive article on the case and its implications.
The case collapsed after three days when analysis of the complainant’s mobile phone was finally revealed to the persistent prosecution barrister, former Tory MP (and now incidentally the renowned legal blogger) Jerry Hayes. It showed that amongst the 50,000 or so messages sent by the complainant (or to use the official term approved by the College of Policing, “the victim”) were messages to Mr Allan pestering him for sex, and fantasising about “rough sex and being raped.” Mr Hayes, a member of the independent bar rather than an employee of the Crown Prosecution Service, saw immediately that the messages destroyed the prosecution case, and invited the judge to find Mr Allan Not Guilty. The judge did so, and has called for an inquiry into why the messages were not disclosed earlier.
…. He had been under investigation or awaiting trial on a false allegation for nearly two years. Had he been convicted he would very probably have received a sentence of around twelve years imprisonment and he would have been on the sex offenders’ register for the rest of his life. A young man would have had his life ruined by a false allegation. He owes his freedom to the professionalism of the man instructed to prosecute him.
Despite the magnificent performance of Mr Hayes, a case like this ought to shatter any remaining illusions that the English and Welsh criminal justice system is fit for purpose.
The system of disclosure of information by the prosecution to the defence in criminal cases is not working efficiently. A joint report by HM Inspector of Constabulary and HM Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service in 2017 found faults in over 80% of disclosure schedules, of which more than 22% were deemed to be wholly inadequate. It is therefore highly likely that in many cases there have been instances where information has been withheld which could have exonerated defendants who have since been convicted. But once an individual has been convicted it is much harder for them to obtain the evidence that has been withheld prior to trial. The priorities of the courts are invested not with past but present cases.
In his article Matthew Scott concludes:
A broken system of disclosure and a broken system of appeals are not the only problem with our criminal justice system.
Add to them the constant and remorseless cuts to legal aid. Add to that the clamour for the rules of evidence to be weighted more and more against defendants, especially in sex cases.
Our system no longer deserves to be considered the envy of the world. It has become instead a symbol of national decline. Cases such as that of Mr Allan show that it is close to becoming a national disgrace.