Covid-19 has created a unique situation in the criminal justice system. Police resources are stretched, courts closed or limited in their ability to conduct criminal trials, and obtaining evidence from witnesses in person is difficult, if not impossible. However, crime, particularly fraud, still continues unabated, and the need to conduct a quick and efficient investigation is more important than ever.
At AnotherDay, we are still seeing a significant increase in private prosecutions, from large insurance fraud, white collar crime, and individual victims of crime, all of whom are seeking access to justice. However, the unique conditions of lock down, with staff working from home, limited travel opportunities, and inability to meet face to face, has made conducting criminal investigations more challenging. So what considerations should be made when conducting criminal investigations remotely?
The main consideration when conducting a private prosecution is ensuring the process is open, fair and transparent. From the outset, and as outlined in the Code for Private Prosecutors, the fairness of trial must be considered at all times. Interviewing witnesses and victims of crime should always be conducted in a way that withstands the most stringent of scrutiny, and these standards must not be dropped even in the current climate.
So, what to bear in mind when conducting criminal investigations remotely?
As with any criminal case, interviewing victims and witnesses are key, and their statements form the base of a private prosecution. This process has been made more challenging by conducting these remotely, but the advent of a myriad of conference facilities has made this more straightforward. In criminal cases we routinely audio record our interviews with witnesses to ensure the process is totally transparent, and so consideration should be given to recording these remote interviews. While there is never any substitute for an interview being conducted face to face, this allows investigators to record the process, share relevant documents, and allow the whole process to be recreated at a later stage if needed.
A further consideration is the gathering of documentary material, and ensuring the continuity of these items. Using secure platforms to transfer material and documentation is evidently crucial, and ideally using a system which allows the audit of the transfer and chain of custody. With criminal proceedings, we ensure correspondence with individual victims and witnesses is retained and scheduled, to ensure we adhere with the stringent requirements of the UK criminal courts, something that has not changed while conducting private prosecutions remotely.
A further consideration is the recovery of digital material, whether from a device or network, to assist in an investigation. Evidently this is logistically challenging under lockdown, however technological advances have enabled obtaining data remotely - using reputable providers to obtain, catalogue and manage the material is vital. In some cases, an actual device will have to be recovered - if physical collection is impossible, then consideration should be given to video recording the device being packaged correctly, couriered, and then the same process conducted in reverse. While not ideal, this ensures the integrity and continuity of the devices to be analysed.
As time passes, hopefully investigations will return to normal. In the short term, crime continues to be committed, and a swift and decisive response needed. Ensuring the investigation is planned correctly will go a long way to minimising potential risks to the case further down the line.