Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Stepping Hill Prosecution

There is currently a huge investigation under way at Stepping Hill hospital, Stockport, into how saline solution came to be contaminated with insulin. The contamination is thought to have led to four deaths, and the police are now also considering potentially forty victims, although it should be stressed that not all of those people died. Still, this is of course an incredibly serious matter, and it is absolutely essential that the cause of this contamination is found and dealt with – particularly if it is the result of deliberate tampering.
Early in the investigation a staff nurse at the hospital, Rebecca Leighton, was arrested and then eventually charged with :
  • Three counts of criminal damage intending to endanger life, and
  • Three counts of of criminal damage being reckless as to whether life would be endangered.
She has spent the past six weeks in prison, but yesterday was dramatically released when the Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop all charges against her. In fact, Sky News even have a statement from the CPS prosecutor, so let’s have a read of that shall we?

CPS prosecutor Nazir Afzal said: “We have conducted a review of the case with senior police officers and sought the advice of leading counsel on whether it would be right to keep Rebecca Leighton in custody while investigations are continuing.

“The advice we have received is that on the evidence currently available there is not a case in law which could proceed and that the charges should be discontinued.
“As this is very much a complex investigation with lines of inquiry still being followed, there is the prospect that further evidence might emerge which the CPS would then consider alongside the evidence gathered so far.”

Radio Four have reported that the charges were made out under the “Threshold Test”, the CPS guidelines for which can be viewed here. In a nutshell, the idea is that if someone presents a substantial bail risk, and not all the evidence is available at the point in time where the suspect would have to be released from custody by law, then a charge can be made, allowing the suspect to be held in custody.

Now, whether the Threshold Test has been applied correctly is something I am not in a position to assess, being neither legally trained nor privy to the details of the investigation. The guidelines make it clear however that this test cannot be used unless “there are continuing substantial grounds to object to bail in accordance with the Bail Act 1976 and in all the circumstances of the case an application to withhold bail may properly be made.” That being the case, were I in Miss Leighton’s position, I would be seeking justification of the perceived flight risk here. After all, bail is a right, and there have to be identified reasons behind a decision to deny it. Certainly there have been no details published that would lead me to consider Miss Leighton a flight risk…

Something else that must be considered is that the Threshold Test cannot be used simply in the vain hope that further evidence might turn up – the prosecutor must have in his/her mind identifiable further evidence, and not merely speculative. So, at some point (after the investigation concludes), I think Miss Leighton needs to be challenging just what this identifiable evidence might have been. After all, she has spent six weeks in custody as a result of it.

Another troubling aspect of the case is the numbers. There have been six charges, relating one presumes to six separate acts given the specific charges (the two types of charge would contradict each other where they applied to a common event). The investigation can’t apparently get ANY of these charges to the point where they have a case in law.

What the hell has happened to the presumption of innocence in this country, and how can the criminal justice system be saved?

Like most impartial observers, I always presumed that the criminal justice system would be professional, rigorous, and hold itself to the highest possible standards as it goes about it’s business. After all, we’re talking about people’s lives. However, on the two occasions that my interest in a case has resulted in my actually attending it, I have been horrified by the conduct of both prosecutions.

We have to presume, in the absence of further evidence, Miss Leighton to be innocent. How is Miss Leighton supposed to resume her career now? Well, I suspect the truth is that this is not something we’ll have to face immediately, as the NHS will doubtless want to conduct their own investigations, as of course is entirely proper under the circumstances. But, assuming that she is cleared (and let’s remember here that the CPS have admitted that the “evidence” is such that they do not even have a case in law, still less one with a realistic prospect of a conviction), what then? Will her managers really trust her? Will her colleagues? her patients?

Justice. Really?

Oh, and finally, my thanks to Matt for the invitation to contribute here. I suspect this will not be my only post...

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