Customs to reform disclosure rules after swathe of blunders

Customs & Excise has instituted a wave of internal reform in a bid to avert any further damage to future prosecution cases.

In a series of pending prosecutions by Customs, defendant lawyers are preparing to charge the organisation with abuse of process for alleged failures to disclose who its informants are.

Customs endured the collapse of the London City Bond cases in 2002 as a result of non-disclosure, but has now drawn up a tough new disclosure regime for its officers.

Michael Kenyon, a partner at Manchester firm Cooper Kenyon Burrows, who is acting for several of the defendants, said: “Customs does not have the long tradition of detailed financial investigation that the police has. Also, now they’re having to deal with more financial and documentary-based investigations.”

The reforms focus on the establishment of a ‘central library’ of all VAT-registered traders connected to the cases. Sixty-five of them relate to alleged mobile phone and computer chip duty fraud (in which some 2,500 such traders are engaged) and a number of others, known as the Chipstick-linked cases, which are also related to computer chip fraud, involving some 500 such traders.

Customs will use this information to decide whether its officers have had contact with these traders, or if there is any suspicion surrounding their activities. If so, then they may be withdrawn as informants.

Eight Customs departments have been asked to check their records.

The internal document seen by The Lawyer follows a wave of recent public criticism of Customs, all related to disclosure failings dating back to 2002. At that time, a Customs prosecution of duty fraud at an East London bonded warehouse collapsed spectacularly after it was found that Customs had not disclosed its use of a participating informant.

Defendants who had pleaded guilty were released. Also, the Special Branch launched an investigation, which is still ongoing, into alleged perjury by senior Customs officers.

Most damning for Customs, however, was the publication of recommendations by Mr Justice Butterfield that its investigation and prosecution arms should be separated.

Customs’ decision to avert further attacks in the pending prosecutions also follows the collapse of other recent prosecutions due to disclosure failings. In one of them, Customs had failed to disclose the fact that a supergrass had expected “substantial reward and other benefits” for giving evidence.

A Customs spokesman said: “The protocol is designed to explain to courts and to defendants the steps that are being taken by the prosecution to ensure compliance with their duties of disclosure in forthcoming trials. It’s been created in order that there’s complete transparency as to the measures now being taken. The protocol clearly shows that we’re well aware of our disclosure obligations and are taking steps to ensure they’re met.”