February 21 2024
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Challenging myths

Challenging myths

Alison Saunders, chief crown prosecutor for London Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), recently gave a speech relating to the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences and hoped would spark debate on a highly contentious subject.  It provoked strongly mixed feelings in me. I support the challenge to myths but question the practicalities of some of the recommendations.

Saunders began by discussing Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary’s 2007 review and the recommendations made which were most relevant to the CPS many of which also impact on the police investigations. Viewed as the gold standard of investigative procedure some of the recommendations ignore budgetary constraints, lack of officer numbers and time constraints. That gold standard is simply at best unrealistic and, at worse, unattainable.

Some points I have picked out from Ms Saunders speech that I would challenge:

Recommendation 6 – where expert evidence is to be sought from a Forensic Physician (FP)- … CPS ensures the FP attends conference and is always called as a live witness.
I have yet to attend a case conference to find that the FP or Forensic Scientist is in attendance. Cost is an obvious factor but with limited resource if the FP were to attend every case conference then who would be conducting the work in the labs? In reality the Rape Specialist (RS) lawyer and I will go over the report and I will go back to the FP with any work or clarification that is required.

Recommendation 8 – ensure that rape cases receive full and early consultation with OIC (Police Officer In the Case) and the RS (Rape Specialist CPS Lawyer).
There are only a limited number of RS lawyers available (they have a higher level of specialist training and experience) to deal with these crimes and there is sometimes a delay of weeks before a consultation can be accommodated. This is not a criticism of the CPS but a simple observation; with limited staff and the increasing work pressure, backlogs build up. This is not in any way acceptable and all agree on that.

Recommendation 12 – CCP to ensure continuity of counsel as well as RS throughout case and CW (victim) should attend court throughout the trial
Resources, sadly, simply do not allow for this to happen. I have often wondered if some of the parties involved in these recommendations have ever worked the British court system?  With common delays for the numerous procedural steps that a court case requires obtaining dates for the barrister, RS, victim, witnesses and the presiding Judge would be a mountainous task.  There are often changes, sometimes within days of a trial and when a victim has already met and got used to the barrister. These changes can have a further detrimental effect on the quality of the evidence presented and adds immeasurable pressure on all involved in the process.

Saunders mentions the introduction by the Police of Rape and Serious Sexual Offence (RASSO) units. Most forces already have these established (although the name of the unit can vary) with detectives working as Dedicated Rape Investigators. A DRI is not a role that many will queue up to take. As investigators we are fully aware, compared with other crimes, that rape is by far the hardest to get to court and to gain a successful conviction on. Victims have to be prepared, from the outset, for the reality of case progression and that a court appearance may be a year down the line from the date of the original complaint; the effect this crime has on a victim and their wider family cannot be understated.

If I take a step back from the reality and look at the recommendations as they were envisaged, in an ideal world where money, time and resource was no object, I do see that the investigation and victims of rape could reap the benefits.

This brings me onto the last area of her speech, challenging myths. A large proportion of rape cases come down to the question of consent and are often one person’s word against the other. The victim will commonly know their offender be it an ex-partner or even a current one. In my experience stranger rapes are extremely rare despite what the media may portray.

What there is a perception of and Saunders has, in my opinion, at least opened up to informed debate, is the facts that subliminally may affect a member of the jury and lead them to give an acquittal.

It includes the ill informed notion that women are disadvantaged as victims of rapes by a perception that if they have failed to fight back or scream, were drunk or wearing attractive and revealing clothes are the guilty party. How can this be the case? There is only one person who is responsible for a rape and that is the rapist. No woman that I have ever encountered has looked to be attacked and yet these factors are used as an excuse or even mitigation as to why the crime has occurred. We have all heard the phrase used about rape victims: ‘they were asking for it’. If a jury member believes that any of the factors I have mentioned entice or encourage rape or that the act of rape can be excused then acquittal is a possibility.

We need to deal with the myths and stereotypes that Alison Saunders has highlighted and ensure that anyone who may sit on a jury in a rape trial has not only an unbiased starting point in relation to the victim, be they a married mother of two or a prostitute, but views the case on the evidence presented and not on their preconceived and outdated ideas. Rapists come from all walks of life. They are not just the ‘dark male with demon eyes hiding in an alley’. They can be ‘normal’ members of society with decent jobs and a family behind them. This doesn’t mean they are incapable of committing the crime.

If the speech from Saunders does nothing more than to highlight these factors and create some further debate then at least it has achieved something. If it can be a starting point to educate those who may sit in judgement at a future trial I may be running then it will have achieved far more and I thank her for the effort.