Curious case of the vanishing court file

By Anna Sandiford 10/01/2013

Many people think that, as an independent forensic scientist, my job is about science in the legal system. That would be true when I have my ‘specialist’ hat on such as when I’m doing blood or breath alcohol calculations, preparing a statement for Court or giving evidence.

For the rest of my job, you’d be quite, quite wrong to think that what I do involves specialist scientific knowledge. What it actually requires is specialist forensic knowledge that has taken years to accumulated regarding the inner workings of police investigations, Legal Aid and court processes.

I don’t mean all the complex legal machinations – that would be the realm of the lawyers. No, I mean the way a criminal case is progressed through the administrative regions of the investigative system before and after it reaches the courts and then how it leaves traces of itself throughout the legal system: how documents are generated, kept and stored, where the important information is kept, where it should be duplicated, what should be in police and scientific files. The basic tenet of forensic science is that every contact leaves a trace – whether that be a piece of broken glass or a court file: both will leave a trace of where they have been.

Only by knowing what should be present is it possible to recognise when something is missing. It’s one of those situations where absence of information is significant, and potentially more telling by its absence than its presence.

When it comes to forensic science, paperwork is crucial. In some cases the critical piece of paper in a case might be something as simple as an Item Receipt & Continuity Sheet – for example, in a DNA case: how and when did the Complainant’s sock with the Defendant’s DNA on it get from the assault scene via two police officers, a laboratory receptionist and a scientific technician and finally onto the scientific laboratory bench? We need to know this information so that we can assess whether or not the DNA findings truly resulted from the Defendant being at the scene or whether accidental contamination is a live issue. This scenario should be relatively simple to address and a single sheet of paper like a missing Item Receipt & Continuity Sheet may just have got jammed in the photocopier when the casefile was being copied for the defence lawyer. A phone call should sort it out and a freshly copied page forthcoming.

What happens though when literally a whole stack of documents goes missing and can’t be found? Such as a court file.

A court file for a complex case that had a trial lasting many days will consist of several large archive boxes, full of confidential witness statements, witness lists, exhibit lists, legal rulings and such like.

This was a problem we faced 18 months ago when we were looking for crucial information in a serious criminal matter that we have been instructed to investigate. Crucial information was missing from the copy documents we had been given. The logical place to find it was the original court file and after some to-ing and fro-ing we were finally given permission to go and look at the court file. However, despite looking high and low, the court office was curiously unable to locate said multi-box court file. We had to suspend our quest to examine the critical information with a promise from the court that they would continue to look for it.

Days turned into weeks. And months. No court file.

Then a journalist happened to ring the court and ask if they could look through the exact same court file. Imagine our suprise when the court file amazingly reappeared, apparently having been located some time earlier but no-one had told us.

It took a journalist a few days to achieve what we couldn’t manage in 18 months.

The power of the media.

0 Responses to “Curious case of the vanishing court file”

  • Interesting…well told.. but this doesn’t fill me with confidence in the legal system. Oh well, it could have been worse. The Allan Hubbard receivers misplaced not one but 72 boxes of documents.