Police and prosecutors are coming under more pressure over the secret activities of undercover police officers
The long-running police operation to infiltrate political groups continued to unravel this week, after the Director of Public Prosecutions disclosed that a second group of environmental campaigners may have wrongly convicted.
On Tuesday Keir Starmer, the DPP, announced that a senior prosecutor may have withheld vital evidence about police spy Mark Kennedy from another trial of activists.
This is potentially a significant development that begins to undermine the official line that the first case, the Ratcliffe-on-Soar miscarriage of justice, was a one-off, isolated failure by police and prosecutors. Starmer’s announcement may be the beginning of the end for the “one rogue prosecution” argument propagated by the authorities. It in effect concedes that the controversy over the undercover policing of protest groups could be bigger than police and prosecutors have so far been willing to admit.
To recap, the court of appeal last year quashed the convictions of 20 campaigners who had been plotting to occupy the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire in 2009. The judges ruled that basic principles of justice had been ignored as prosecutors and police withheld key evidence which could have acquitted the campaigners. That evidence consisted of secret recordings made by Kennedy of the activists’ private meetings. The appeal court judges said they shared the “great deal of justifiable public disquiet” about the case.
Activists have been demanding a comprehensive inquiry to establish whether key evidence gathered by undercover officers has been concealed from other trials of activists, causing other miscarriage of justices.
As we blogged in more depth here and here, the government and Starmer have been rejecting this demand. But that position is now looking a bit shakier, after the second (so far potential, although it would be surprising if the court of appeal does not clear the Drax activists) miscarriage of justice emerged this week. To many, the practice of withholding crucial evidence begins to look much more routine.
So far, the public only knows about the two cases – at Ratcliffe and Drax – primarily through the efforts of the activists and their legal representatives to uncover the activities of one of the undercover policeman who had infiltrated their ranks (Kennedy).
The question is – how many other times since 1968 have police and prosecutors kept secret key evidence gathered by other undercover police officers, whose identities and activities remain secret?
Mike Schwarz, the lawyer for the Drax activists, called for police and prosecutors to be more open with the public and to “do a lot more to make amends” for past failings.
It is noticeable that Starmer took some time before making his decision over the Drax activists. Schwarz, of the Bindmans law firm, raised the Drax case with Starmer in March last year. The DPP took several months before commissioning the first of two reviews. The results of the second review were sent to Starmer in April.
It’s worth reading this analysis from the Bristling Badger blog of why the Ratcliffe and Drax cases may only be the tip of the iceberg.
As ever, the question is whether, in the face of accusations of a sustained cover-up, the approach taken by the police and prosecutors is inspiring public confidence and trust.