The National Crime Agency used flawed warrants to search properties and seize evidence in hundreds of live cases, an independent review has found.
The failings are so serious that key evidence could have to be relinquished in 51 cases being brought against some of Britain’s most serious gangsters, the review found, while technical errors will have to be disclosed to the defence in a further 242 cases.
The elite crime-fighting agency was forced to admit last year that it may have been searching properties and seizing evidence unlawfully for almost a decade, after an investigation by BuzzFeed News uncovered glaring “systemic” failings in the way it applies for legal permission to conduct its operations.
The independent review of more than 3,000 warrants in all 326 of its live cases was undertaken after two major trials collapsed because the evidence had been seized in illegal raids, and the agency was condemned by a judge for its “egregious disregard for constitutional safeguards”.
The report on the six-month review, published on Tuesday, found that the warrants used in 15% of the NCA's live cases were so seriously flawed that there was a “significant risk” of the lawfulness of the evidence being challenged. Technical deficiencies found in a further 74% of cases were deemed "more minor" but would still have to be disclosed to the defence, it said.
The review was conducted by lawyers from the NCA and the Crown Prosecution Service, and overseen by an independent panel headed by the director of the attorney general’s office.
It identified a series of common failings in the NCA’s warrant applications that could render them unlawful, including a failure to specify the evidence being sought, copying and pasting of wording between cases, the use of imprecise catch-all language, and a failure to notify magistrates that the suspects had no criminal records.
A report by the independent advisory panel that oversaw the review, also published on Tuesday, said that the members were “concerned to note that in the majority of cases reviewed some deficiencies had been found in the warrant process”.
It went on: “The Panel was further concerned that it had taken the collapse of two cases for the deficiencies to be identified. Basic quality assurance and management oversight systems had failed in addition to the poor operational practice represented in the warrants reviewed. The lack of any engagement between operational officers and NCA Legal and external lawyers in relation to warrants was stark.”
However, it found no evidence of bad faith by officers and noted that “the NCA had recognised these failures and the importance of the issues identified and had moved quickly to take remedial action.”
Despite the NCA's previous admission that it "inherited" the warrant failures from its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the internal review team decided not to examine the warrants used in historical cases. Lawyers have warned previously that dozens of previous convictions could be marred by the same systemic failures.
A spokesperson for the NCA said: “No prosecutions have been discontinued as a result of the findings of this review and there were no issues of bad faith or misconduct. However we will never be complacent. It is essential that the NCA retains the confidence of the public and to do that we must hold ourselves to the highest professional standards and be transparent in how we address failings when they occur. Our enforcement of the new warrants regime is, and will continue to be, rigorous and exacting.”
Tom Warren is an investigations correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Tom Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.