UK

Red diesel trial collapse shows 'systemic disclosure failings'

Peter Norton
Image caption The trial of tanker driver Peter Norton collapsed after the prosecution failed to disclose evidence

A judge has warned of "systemic failures" in disclosing evidence after a £500,000 red diesel VAT fraud trial collapsed.

A linked trial also had to be abandoned due to errors on the part of investigating officers from HMRC.

HMRC said it accepted the failings and was working with the Crown Prosecution Service to learn from the incident.

It follows a series of high-profile rape cases which have collapsed due to crucial evidence not being disclosed.

Judge Robert Trevor-Jones said the fraud case showed "lamentable negligence" and was indicative of a more widespread problem.

The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas blamed disclosure failings on "cuts of a very high magnitude" to the criminal justice system.

In December 2013, officers from customs and excise (HMRC) raided tanker driver Peter Norton's home.

He was charged with others with conspiracy to evade VAT by selling nearly £500,000 of laundered so-called red diesel fuel.

Red diesel is only legal for off-road vehicles such as tractors, and has a much lower VAT rate.

A VAT fraud involving the fuel works by removing the red dye to make it look like regular diesel before the fuel is then sold on fraudulently at the higher VAT rate.

Peter Norton has always denied any wrongdoing.

Image caption If the red dye is removed, the substance looks like normal diesel

After a four-year investigation by HMRC, the case went to trial in January at Liverpool Crown Court.

But a month into the trial, a vast amount of information that should have been disclosed to the defence was identified on the laptop of the HMRC investigating officer, Daniel Grundy.

The prosecution asked for an adjournment to sift through the material that should have been disclosed.

Judge Trevor-Jones refused and the trial collapsed.

In his ruling, he said: "I accept that the failure here can properly be described as negligent, but it was negligence to a lamentable degree.

"It is indicative of a more systemic failure going beyond the omissions of just one officer."

He added: "The competence, even credibility, of the investigative team has clearly been tainted."

The same disclosure failings meant that a linked trial of petrol station owners, due to begin a few weeks later, was also abandoned.

Lawyers in the case estimate the two trials cost in excess of £2m of public money.

Image caption Judge Robert Trevor-Jones said the credibility of the investigations team had been "tainted"

Mr Norton told the BBC: "When you are in court, you look at the surroundings you are in.

"There are barristers, there are judges, there is a jury, and these people are in charge of my liberty at that time.

"As a defendant, you think that HMRC have done everything in a professional manner and you feel as though, hopefully, everyone has done their job properly to have a fair trial."

In any criminal investigation, the investigating authority - be it the police or HMRC - are bound to gather evidence that leads to the suspect and any that also leads away from him.

Critically, the prosecution is under a duty to disclose to the defence any of the material gathered that either assists the defence case or undermines their own.

This latest case shows that disclosure failings are not limited to rape and sexual assault cases. The problems are more systemic and investigating authorities other than the police are also failing in their duty to disclose evidence.

'Widespread failures'

The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas told the BBC he believed "disclosure failures are pretty widespread".

"We have, over the last 20 or so years, seen less police officers and other investigating officers go to court, so they don't understand the importance of disclosure."

He added: "It seems to me that the cuts have gone too far.

"The obvious thing to do is to make sure proper resources are put into this vital aspect of our criminal justice system."

But Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC has denied the current disclosure failures are a "resources" issue.

An HMRC spokesperson said they "fully accept" the failings, but would be working closely with the CPS to "see what lessons can be learned."

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