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The Leighton case and necessity criteria

From beginning to end the Stepping Hill incident has been handled in a way that makes me ashamed of our criminal justice system and free press. Rebecca Leighton was arrested based on very little evidence, it was more of a desperate attempt to be seen to be making progress by GMP. The media, once again, got over excited and published every detail of Rebecca's life, leaving the public in no doubt that she was guilty, despite the fact she had not had the chance to defend herself. This right to a defence must be absolute, and any person who seeks to circumvent that, directly or indirectly, should be found in contempt. I would be much happier for press freedoms to be limited in exchange for fairer pre-trial procedures.

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Bravely Rebecca has stood up for herself. There is insufficient evidence to prove she had tampered with saline packs. The fact that a few Tramadol tablets were found at her home should have no effect on her guilt of the much more serious offence of criminal damage with intent to cause injury. The Nursing and Midwifery Council would never have allowed a nurse to return to work were there any doubt that they are, or ever have been, a danger to the public. The limitations placed upon Rebecca are motivated by the small amount of Tramadol found at her home, and not motivated by the fact she may have tampered with any saline. If there way any suggestion that she may be guilty, even if the evidence is not enough to prove it, they would not allow her to return to work.

Rebecca has been found guilty in the court of public opinion. She has had her life turned upside down, and she has a lot of work ahead of her to rebuild her life. I wish her all the best.

This case demonstrates how careful we police officers have to be when arresting someone. For most police officers, an arrest is a daily occurrence. The general approach is that if we have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, we will arrest the suspect to prevent the investigation being hampered by loss or disruption of evidence, or disappearance of the suspect, and to allow a prompt and effective investigation of the offence and conduct of the person (SOCPA '05 s110(1)(5)...there are other criteria).

This pic satisfies two of my favourite
pastimes; annoying law peeps, and cats that think
they do jobs
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What i think we are missing is a little guy on our shoulder who reminds us how life changing an arrest can be. He needs to be reminding us that reasonable suspicion is actually a very high standard of proof...it can be easy to forget that. He needs to be reminding us that that standard of proof must be relative to the possible consequences if we are wrong. Where the consequences are severe, like that of Rebecca Leighton, we need to be doubly sure that we are right to arrest someone, and that there is no alternative. Some questions we should be asking;
  • Do i really need to arrest this person?  or can we arrest by appointment once we have investigated in more detail.
  • How likely are they to do a runner? we must not presume everyone is going to run. We should only arrest to prevent disappearance when there is positive evidence that the person is likely to do that.
  • Have we secured all the evidence we require?
    • If not, how possible or likely is it that the suspect will tamper with it? again, we must not take the view that our suspects are by default going to tamper with evidence. Where there is positive evidence to suggest they will, then the arrest is necessary on grounds of evidence loss.
  • Can we secure a prompt and effective investigation in a less invasive manner? It can be quicker for everyone involved to arrest the suspect. The process may be quicker for both the police and the suspect, but speed shouldn't always be our goal...our goal should be minimising the effect on those who are innocent until proven guilty. In some cases i would much rather see slower investigations that have less impact on the suspect.

The police service is unlike no other. When mistakes are made, we learn from them.  Rebecca Leighton's case needs to be subject to an internal enquiry, because i do believe that long established police and CPs procedures have let her down.

Update: I realise i didn't go into the issue of pre-trial press disclosure as i wanted to focus on the necessity criteria. Pre-trial press disclosure is something that will have to be legislated for, but necessity criteria interpretation is a culture that can be changed through training. I think a combination of the two is what we need.