Suspects and victims of crime face unacceptable delays while under-resourced police struggle to analyse thousands of computers, tablets and mobile phones linked to offences from murders to child abuse.
That is the view of criminal lawyers in response to findings by this newspaper, which revealed Sussex Police seized nearly 10,000 digital devices last year – but had just nine specialists responsible for forensically examining them.
Freedom of Information requests were lodged after one indecent images case this newspaper followed took 14 months from arrest to charge, with delays analysing devices highlighted by the force.
But the timescale was described as ‘unsurprising’ by one lawyer, with reports of cases involving digital forensics taking up to 18 months to come to court. READ MORE: How our research uncovered wider concerns with criminal justice system
Sussex Police said its specialist team was expanding, with a new system this year introduced to increase efficiency.
Neal Gozzett, senior partner at Monan Gozzett Solicitors, Arundel, said: “Any case where a device is seized is dramatically slowing down the investigation process.
It means that cases are severely delayed in their coming to court, and ‘justice delayed is justice denied’...Dr James Walsh, ex-Sussex Police Authority chairman
“There are not enough resources to download the data and this increases the amount of time people are under investigation, causing significant stress for clients and their families.”
Police caseloads revealed
This newspaper submitted two Freedom of Information requests, both of which Sussex Police replied to significantly after the statutory response time passed. Click here for the full story
They revealed 7,513 devices were submitted for analysis in 2017, when police said six officers were responsible for their examination.
This would have equated to about five devices per person, per working day.
Investigations related to 258 indecent images cases, 707 drugs offences, 308 rapes, 60 murders and 35 grooming probes.
The team expanded to nine in 2018, but the number of devices seized rose to 9,978.
Shared between nine, workloads would have been similar to 2017 – about four devices per person, per working day.
The FOIs showed police sought a 30-day turnaround on ‘standard’ devices but expected complex cases to take longer. The force said exact data on times it met the turnaround target was ‘difficult to readily quantify’.
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’
Andrew Bishop, managing director of Bishop and Light Solicitors – which has offices across Sussex – said delays involving digital examinations had been ‘a problem for a number of years’.
He said this was not the fault of police but a consequence of austerity cuts to the criminal justice system.
“For the suspects it is hanging over them for so long,” he said.
“Some of them do pretty horrible things and one can have very little sympathy for them but others are cleared or no allegations are brought – and that is just unfair.
“It is also unfair for the victims, who pluck up the courage to make a complaint but are then waiting for a year or 18 months for a prosecution.”
Mr Bishop said cases coming to court 12-18 months after arrest had been known to result in lighter sentences after judges had expressed concern over delays.
Dr James Walsh, former chairman of Sussex Police Authority and leader of Arun District Council, said the figures were ‘very alarming indeed’: “It means that cases are severely delayed in their coming to court, and ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, both to the alleged victims and to the accused.
“It also means that potential witnesses’ recollection of events may be less than clear.”
Sussex Police said it had significantly increased the number of analysts over the last three years.
A spokesman said: “Our digital forensics team’s (DFT) work is an essential element in modern policing and regularly provides our investigators with vital information that leads directly to achieving justice for victims, often in the most serious of cases.”
The force said a new, faster service had been introduced this year, including plans to recruit 12 new specialists. Seven examiners have been recruited so far, with outsourcing available to assist.
The spokesman said: “There has been a significant increase in numbers of analysts in the team over the past three years, partly funded by an increase in the police precept achieved by the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne.
“As part of this transformation, a new service delivering simple, faster time examinations was introduced this year, including the allocation of 12 additional examiner posts. The team is still building its capacity, but seven examiners have so far been recruited and are in post.
“The DFT service for officers is also backed up by a significant outsourcing capability which supports turnaround times and minimises the risk of queues forming.
“Exact data on turnaround times is difficult to readily quantify because the examination of digital devices is not a simple automated or routine process. As part of our ISO accreditation processes, we have managed arrangements in-force that regulate allocation of cases, initial examinations and contact with investigating officers.
“In most cases, it is not possible to predict or specify the time it may take to complete a digital forensic case due to their complex nature.”
Digital forensics: case studies
Sussex Police championed three success stories when digital forensics helped convict serious offenders.
But lawyers this newspaper spoke to also pointed out cases where delays had an adverse effect on suspects and their families:
-Expert evidence helped secure a 15-year jail term for a ‘prolific’ sex offender against young children, found to have visited some 6,000 websites to pursue his interest
-A man charged with sexual offences claimed police had deleted relevant data. Hours of analysis secured a guilty plea after it was proven ‘impossible’
-A man engaged in sexualised web-based chat with children across the country is awaiting sentencing after experts demonstrated a pattern of behaviour to the courts
-A young client with mental health issues under investigation for a sexual offence has been waiting months for a charging decision. His solicitor said a mobile phone had been ‘overlooked’ - despite his own expert taking a week to analyse the device
-The child of a suspect saw a computer with their A-level work seized, with difficulties in recovering the device in a timely fashion
-The wife of a man accused of a sexual offence lost access to various business records because a computer was seized, with long delays in recovering the device